I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
I’ve been orbiting around the inevitable for several months.
“Orbiting” is the appropriate word. Through this tireless exercise, I’ve sampled Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese, the latter two I’ve consumed twice already. And despite having taken in every other Asian alternative, I’ve failed to dip a toe in the waters of China. The reasons are obvious, as Chinese food has an unfortunate reputation of monotony. You could almost call it homogeneous, as nearly every Chinese restaurant you could walk into in North America offers only the same mélange of nontraditional westernized Chinese dishes.
I am biased. Under full disclosure, I visited China several years ago, and it remains one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Two weeks long, and nearly every moment remains burned into my long-term memory. One aspect of the trip still clear in my mind was that I never ate a single morsel relatable to the Chinese cuisine we are accustomed to. Most of where I ate was dim sum, relatively easy to find in Vancouver but nonexistent in a northern town like Prince George (and no, I don’t count the pre-frozen crap at Fortune Palace). Here, we have more Chinese restaurants than all other Asian-themed restaurants combined. In fact, you could throw in all the McDonalds and it still wouldn’t surpass that number. You’d swear they were all members of a franchise offering the same variations of combination platters. It’s my fervent hope that with the influx of Asians moving from the south, reflective in the aforementioned Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian restaurants, that we’ll see proper dim sum or more traditional Chinese restaurants in town.
Someone may mention that, like Thailand, an opinion of Chinese food is reflective of where you live, and I may not be aware of how many people in China eat exactly the same food as we do in the west. That may be correct, but I still feel it’s no excuse given the amazing varieties of food I had over there. Has anyone heard of Dong Bei food? If not, you’re missing out.
I need to start eating Chinese now, else I’m stuck visiting one every week for the next three months at the end of the first stage of this blog. However, I won’t make it easy on myself. To start, I’ve traveled clear across town, from limit to limit. This involves driving down into the plateau of the main city and then up the other side to find a well built, easily located place called Northern Palace. I know that’s Chinese as it contains one of the four compulsory words all Chinese restaurants apparently must have (“Great”, “Palace”, “China”, and “Asian”). The restaurant is well made but lacks any real markings of heritage. The chairs, tables and general décor make it look like any nonspecific eatery built in the foundation of a Sandman…only without the Sandman. If you think I’m exaggerating, I notice that there are no chopsticks on any of the tables. I order a lunch platter and add pot stickers for additional variety. The combination is your typical assortment of chicken chow mein, sweet & sour pork and the standard egg roll accompaniment. The chow mein is dry and tasteless. The egg roll is crunchy and uninspired. The pot stickers are good and…well, it’s Chinese food. It tastes exactly as one would expect it to taste. If it achieves the standard flavor without any surprises, how could I complain?
Well I do because how could one stand above the others if they taste all the same. With Northern Palace, they’ve the distinction of being one of the ONLY Chinese restaurants this side of town…assuming you forget that the Hart Wheel, a kilometer down the road, also offers Chinese.
Northern Palace has one big compliment coming to them, and it’s a big one, one that may encourage you to eat there if hungry, if you’re driving by, if you live in the area, AND if you’re desperate for immediate food. Northern Palace is cheap. It’s real cheap. The combination platter I order comes to only $7.50, and with the pork pot stickers, still barely breaks $13. I won’t lie, all these dishes taste like the frozen counterparts you could buy from the Save On across the street. This is in antitheses to Mai Thai where the food is a shocking collection of flavorful traditional dishes unfiltered from the homeland. Northern Palace is as Chinese as Boston Pizza is Italian, but if you know that and want something without any revelations, it may be worth the momentary distraction.
Hey, at least they still offer the fortune cookie.
Mine says, “You are incredibly clever. Others often come to you for advice.”
Not bad. Not much of a fortune, but it sure helps with confidence.
Northern Palace Restaurant Ltd
3788 Austin Rd W, Prince George, BC V2K 2H6
After snaking my way through the demilitarized zone that is Prince George construction, I finally arrive. Initial speculation would have the Hart Wheel as a local diner, half expecting world class apple pie and damn fine cups of coffee. Each table is decorated by mugs, silo-sized sugar decanters and those classic napkin dispensers that always seem tear the paper when I try to remove one.
I should order coffee and a greasy hamburger. Sitting down, I catch the mill and road workers parked around other tables, the empty pastry display fridge, the clumsy buffet of jellos and loose greens, and the huge open kitchen apparently modeled from a cafeteria. I should expect to sit down, be greeted like a regular (as others seem to be), and be told how amazing the chicken pot pie is. The waitress should have an apron wrapped around a sun dress and call me darlin’.
Hart Wheel is a Chinese restaurant.
I’ve seen more Asian culture in a Florida retirement home. Hart Wheel’s menu is four pages, with one dedicated to western dishes and the other three focused on the same monotonous mélange of meins, rolls, and fo yungs. Instinct suggests that I ignore the Chinese and order a hamburger, but I swore I’d keep to the theme of the restaurant…if I knew what that was. I’m recommended the buffet, but as I’m not a senior citizen worried over what he chews, I opt for the larger of the two combination Chinese dishes from the lunch menu. Egg roll, sweet & sour pork, chicken chow mein, and spicy chicken, the latter being the only deviation from the mundane. It’s actually spicy, a departure from the tedious other samples on my plate.
It would be important make comparisons to Northern Palace (a previous entry). As expected, it’s exactly the same. To the way the chicken is cut, to the texture of the pork, nothing goes against the grain, making the aforementioned spicy chicken a bizarre standout. The egg roll could use a bit more filling. So with mostly identical food, can Hart Wheel outshine the more presentable Northern Palace?
No, but who cares. I mean it’s like picking a favorite car between a Geo metro and Suzuki swift.
Hart Wheel’s three-combination platter came to $8.95 with the four-combination offered at $10.95. The portions are notable larger than Northern Palace. Hart Wheel may tie its competitor in value, but loses a mark in taste, if that can somehow happen. I stand out among the other patrons, most of who appear amazed at this tiny computer sitting on my table. They probably still point at passing airplanes and act flabbergasted by the invention of the 8-track. The salad bar was obviously customized for them.
Hart Wheels doesn’t looks very good, and the service has a lot to be desired. I am trying to make a “but” comment. But the food is…no. But the value is…no. Apparently the only thing going for restaurants in this region (also populated by last week’s Atlantis) is the hope that patrons are too lazy to drive five more minutes into town for better food. The chow mein is dry, the pork is rock solid, and the egg roll is vacant. The meal was utterly forgetful and honestly a little unpleasant. Despite a spattering of Asian paintings on the wall, the Hart Wheel is like a Japanese cowboy singing Elvis. Badly. Something just doesn’t look right. If he sang well, I’d give him credit, hell recognition if not just absolution. If offered advice, I’d suggest singing lessons before quitting and working for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
I don’t have an issue with the Hart Wheel serving Chinese food despite not looking Chinese in any way. No chopsticks or even fortune cookies are offered. They’re a local diner serving Chinese food…what of it?
Then do it well.
As I leave, I finally spot the Chinese owner. I am neither claiming this as justification nor saying it’s a requirement; perhaps it only points to motivation. I’ve had the best sushi served to me by a Korean and amazing Italian served by an Indian. My mother can make (and has made) better Chinese than this. The spicy chicken ties Hart Wheel with Northern Palace. It costs a dollar more but Hart Wheel has larger portions. The place looks like the basement dining area of a Sandman motel and the staff are nearly as attentive. I really hope there’s some quality Chinese food in my future. I hope I don’t have to go to Vancouver to get it.
PS: For those curious, the Geo metro and Suzuki swift were identical cars.
Is “adorable” a word you’ll respect? New Asia is adorable. To call it out of the way would be putting it mildly. Located in a miniscule strip mall surrounded on all sides by apartments and old houses, New Asia doesn’t have much competition. The nearest restaurant is almost a mile away (and another Chinese restaurant, shocker). I’d been to New Asia before, but it had recently gone through a considerable renovation. It has embraced the pseudo Chinese-fusion motif with perfection, not resembling any ethnicity as much as it resembling some pasteurized, disinfected and inoffensive pastiche of an unspecific Asian country. No chopsticks, a massive buffet, the standard. With hanging scrolls and wood-framed murals, suspended paper lamps under dentist-office fluorescents, this doesn’t look like a restaurant; it looks like my apartment.
Don’t get me wrong, it looks great (I like my apartment). If I didn’t know better, I’d wager they just finished this renovation last week. The carpet looks hardly tread on. Everything about it looks sanitized; which I can understand considering this place reminds me of a themed hospital cafeteria.
Resisting the urge for the combination plate, I opt for the ginger beef hot pot with spring roll appetizer. The rest of the menu is exactly what you would expect, with perhaps a slight skew towards western cuisine. I hate using the words “Western Cuisine”; Cuisine is somewhat of an insult. I don’t consider burgers, steaks, and fries gastronomic bliss. The spring roll is hotter than Portman in Swan, only surpassed later with the sizzling plate of ginger beef. The roll was exceptionally greasy. Ginger beef should be spicy, but this lacks any punch and is as limp as Heffner sans blue pill. If it had some kick or if the beef had some flavour, I’d recommend it. As it stands, they get credit for offering a substantial portion of it; there’s got to be at least ten cows worth of lips here.
The waitress doted on me but that was to be expected, as I was their only patron with not a single soul entering through my meal. If we’re grading a curve, I’d say New Asia rates above the Sarlac pits preying on passing drivers in the Hart Highlands, and since there’s little competition here, you can’t do much worse. And as I’m unlikely to find a restaurant that breaks from this false image of Asian cuisine, New Asia succeeds in its simple goal. Easy to succeed when you aim so low. New Asia belongs under a Days Inn, where after you check out, you slip past the archway, grab the nearest countertop newspaper (they have them), snatch up a plate and go medieval on the buffet. I’m honestly surprised there’s no television…must be still on the way.
New Asia Restaurant
102-4299 1st Ave, Prince George, BC
Addendum: As I got up, I noticed the light fixtures on the walls. There aren’t enough of them to light the place on their own and they sit under huge fluorescent tiles that do the job considerably. Odd, I wonder if they even work. Also, I know of the phony belief that if you have multiple fortunes in your cookie, that is a sign of further fortune, assurance that all of them would come to pass. So what does it say when you have two and both are identical?
I’m a tiger, if you’re at all curious.
I only mention that because of the Chinese zodiac placemats in front of me. These cheap paper placemats are usually shipped by the thousands as expendable items at the end of every meal. The Great Wall Restaurant protects them under tinted glass…to avoid having to dispose of them, I guess. This is not to mean Great Wall is cheap, at least not yet; it’s the most Asian looking restaurant I’ve seen so far in my journeys (at least in Canada). Without turning my head, I spot at least two framed Asian paintings of generic junks and pagodas suspended from stain-resistant walls.
I don’t look forward to Chinese restaurants despite never really having a bad experience at one. There’s just something so mind-taxingly uninspired about them. Trying to glean some culinary value out of a westernized Chinese restaurant is like trying to do the same out of an Arby’s. And yet when weighing the options, I’d opt for ethnic over the alternative—shaved imitation meat drenched in processed cheese food.
(On that, I have a rule that I never purchase any edible product that requires a statement on the box that it is in fact edible. If government mandate demands you put the word “food” on it, that should be a sign to avoid that product.)
At least Chinese restaurants offer a buffet. Although I’ve stated that I avoid them as much as possible, I’ve made exceptions from time to time. Regardless, I despise the practice of them—forcing me to hobble astride other zombies looking past the sneeze-guard at tepid offerings that are either awash in monosodium glutamate or badly in need of some. The buffet is a dollar more than the single plate combinations and gives me the opportunity to trying everything on the menu. Most people don’t do that—helping themselves to a single spoonful of every bowl. The reason why people elect the buffet is because they can’t abide the limitation of a single mountain of cramp-inducing food. Frankly, I’m shocked that buffets even survive in this obesity-plagued world. I know of people—some claiming friendship—that would clean this entire run out and demand more. There was even a time where I would fall into this very category. Since my meteoric weight lost over 15 years ago, I’ve prided myself on being able to avoid situations like this.
I went for seconds, yes, but only to sample the other bowls, not to repeat any of the previous offerings….because I assure you, none of them are worth repeating. Everything from the sweat and sour—I-I mean sweet and sour pork, chicken balls, and fried rice is lukewarm and borderline flavourless. Even the wonton soup can be summarized as a noodle wrapped unseasoned ball of grade F beef left simmering in un-refreshed water (thank my colon I’m only forty minutes into lunch service). Half the buffet is split between the Asian stalwarts and generic bowls of American porridge—potato salad, macaroni salad, bean salad, and other salads with no actual lettuce. After the second helping, I develop an unsettling knot in my both my stomach and my oesophagus. Nothing appeals to me and less than thirty minutes after sitting down, I’m apprehensive about returning for the complimentary Jell-O or brownie desert. I whether the storm and fight my way for third trip. Like scaling Everest, I imagine this buffet has killed more people. I doubt a single desert offering was made in-house, probably brought in from the local Costco. I know what vacuum-sealed s’mores look like. I elect for the cheesecake as that’s something very few people (save me) can screw up. It also settles my stomach and placates my colon hopefully lone enough for my trip home.
Thank Christ I’m not driving back from Quesnel.
What annoys me about places like this is not their pedestrian practices or fast-food flat flavours; it’s the fact that they’re so successful. Going into local places like U&Me and Indian Lion, I get depressed at their vacant lunch services. Meanwhile, Great Walls bustles with the activity of an Emergency Room, implying multiple metaphors with that comparison—Great Wall is a place you should avoid unless forced against all other options to enter. And yet, there’s considerable competition. I’m amazed such a place could get away with this level of mediocrity with Thanh Vu less than thirty feet away. Here we have two Asian restaurants in throwing distance to each other with a disparage of quality further apart than original and new trilogy Star Wars. Even that gives Great Wall too much credit.
TNG versus Voyager? No.
Deep Impact versus Armageddon? Getting closer.
Original versus remade Psycho? Something more obvious.
Classic versus New Coke?
I really can’t think of an appropriate comparison. This divide stands in a class by itself. I can’t foresee a reason why anyone would stop here. Do yourself and your heart, pancreas, and other assorted good n’ plenty a favour and keep driving for fifteen more seconds.
GREAT WALL RESTAURANT
2757 Spruce St, Prince George, British Columbia V2L 2S2, Canada
I was apprehensive returning to the gastronomic “Thunderdome” that is Chinese cuisine. My appetite and my colon fought a desperate battle of wills for control over my culinary desires. The decision was made easier by my lack of transportation this week with my Evolution wedged onto Fountain Tire car jacks to get re-shoed. It was either Westwood Pup or a protracted trek through slush to Fortune Palace, often lauded as the best Chinese restaurant in Prince George, a claim uncontested with the best Chinese restaurant in Prince George being analogous to the best Dixie Chick; no one cares.
Fortune Palace is cursed with a location that appears advantageous, but is actually somewhat frustrating. Located off-highway, it’s difficult to notice from the distant lane, and once you see it from the adjacent lane; you’ve already missed its only entrance, forcing you to drive nearly two kilometres up a hill to the next intersection. It does benefit from an impressive exterior, with tall spreads of glass fringed by an immense parking lot which was, as you might expect, empty. The interior compliments the outer first impressions. The tables are nicely spaced with friendly employees covered in traditional garb, meaning threads no one in China wears outside of a period film. Fortune Palace has one distinction not shared with anyone else. It offers dim sum.
Let’s set the way-back machine to 2007. Despite being nearly bankrupt, I thought it beneficial to spend my last few coins on a vacation to China. I had an assignation waiting and it was a country I’d always desired to see. Not once during my time there did I order one chow mein or egg foo young. Mostly, I had dim sum. I not only haven’t found many places offering dim sum in my other travels, but the frozen varieties I did locate paled in comparison. Despite having tried the dim sum at Fortune Palace before, I decided to repeat the experience for the sake of this article.
Before the plate arrived, I ordered a bowl of wonton, and thank the Monkey King that Fortune Palace doesn’t follow Great Wall’s example. The broth had flavour and the wontons share the bowl with vegetables and cuts of indentified beef. Good enough for me. The dim sum that did arrive strangely matched the frozen variety you can purchase far cheaper from the local Chinese Store (the punctuation is correct; it’s actually called the Chinese Store), so much so that I wonder why anyone would waste their time and money paying a place to cook it for them. Plus, for $10.75, I didn’t get a lot of food. I got one egg-roll, four pot stickers, two shumai (pork), and a pair of har gow (shrimp). I can get can more sushi for that price.
I’m sure their regular menu is superior to their competition, so goes the claims made by friends and family. On those grounds, Fortune Palace deserves some attention, by any other measure that there’s no other Chinese restaurant for miles. Approaching from the South, Fortune Palace would be your first taste of Asian cuisine past the city limits, with your next stop being Great Wall. Despite not comparing these restaurants on an equal culinary baseline, I can still confirm the claim that Fortune Palace would be the preferred location. I would just avoid the dim sum; it’s borderline larceny.
When the word “buffet” is in the title, there’s really no choice on the matter. China Cup is an enormous establishment, the largest of its kind in town. With at least forty tables and 200+ seats, probably more, it surpasses China Sail by a comfortable margin, a shock even to me. Except that China Sail is a restaurant, while China Cup feels more like gastronomic thunderdome. If you want clarification, I felt more like Blaster than Master on entering. I was shepherded into a line which took me directly to the cashier, confidence boosting. I should claim any tobacco or fruits beings brought into the country while I’m here, at the very least renew my driver’s license; that’s how detached this place was to an actual restaurant. It does play all the other cards right, booths and tables, low hanging lights. There were a dozen ceiling fans suspended from a furniture store-like ceiling which I wished were actually spinning.
After preloading my meal at the counter, I was released onto the gargantuan buffet. I’m honest in that I don’t prejudge restaurants, even when the word “buffet” is in the title. Even when I approached the Wal-Mart of smorgasbords, I had a shred of hope that this location, dedicated to this one concept, could improve an experience I usually rate only slightly higher than dental appointments.
China Cup gets credit for selection, that’s for sure. Basically any non-ethnic Chinese dish you could think of is represented, along with French fries and onion rings, the latter two I avoided. As always, I sampled only small portions in order to properly evaluate as much as possible. The first plate was a disaster. The vegetable roll was half-filled with gray grease, and both the battered chicken and the battered shrimp had more batter than meat. The batter wasn’t totally cooked either. Imagine the experience of biting through undercooked batter with the sudden fear about how fit chicken inside was.
I’ve been reviewing these places too long to tolerate this kind of food. I finished the above average wonton, pushed the half eaten roll and battered stumps aside, and fetched another plate. The second helping faired only slightly better. The Szechuan pork was leather and the sweet & sour pork was suede. However, the curried-scented Singapore rice was pretty good as was the peppered beef. I overheard a gentleman ask a passing waiter about the delay in getting the sushi platters filled. Here was I thinking China Taste was unique in this experiment. Although at least served at room temperature, the rolls were only comprised of pickled and preserved vegetables rolled in rice and drizzled with mayonnaise (how elitist of them). One bizarre inclusion was the deep-fried ebi roll, which was spicy and might have been good if it didn’t have the texture of a racquetball. The yam tempura was at least crispy. The laziest dish of them all was the selection of puddings and tarts for dessert, which amounted to lazy spoonfuls of lemon JELL-O pudding haphazardly dropped into pastry shells (pinch me).
The odd praise I could offer was that China Cup looked like a restaurant I might have found in China. A huge expanse of tables and waiters scurrying around. But when I was in China, these places were dim sum which was served at your table. When I go to a restaurant, I do expect to be served. I honestly should rate Chinese restaurants separately from the rest, specifically determined on how long after sitting down I feel compelled to visit a bathroom. With China Cup, along with Taste and Golden Place, it was actually during the meal itself. That’s some rocket-powered grease-flavored slurry there.
With a solid brick wall separating the buffet from the tables, they must be prepared for when an 800 lb. fat guy stumbles after having a heart attack from his sixth serving of brown-flavored meatballs. I wonder what it says about me, at least from the perspective of waiters and other customers. Don’t I have better places to be than clatter at my keyboard alone in a massive Chinese restaurant? I actually felt pity for the lone gentlemen across the way that enjoyed…no….consumed his meal quietly and answered the waiter’s query with “wonderful”.
Dear Lord Superman, can I now be done with Westernized Chinese restaurants?