The first time I attempted to go to Palace Hotel, I circled the block near the corner of Hanover and Columbus streets three times before giving up and heading to King Street for fried chicken and oysters. A week later, I found the joint after receiving a tip that there's no palace or hotel, but instead an old storefront with a neon PBR sign in the window and "Cigarettes & Beer" scripted above the barred doorway.
Inside, there might be a guy at the bar in skinny jeans and a plaid shirt drinking PBR. At a corner table, it would be no surprise to find a group of young professionals ordering a round of High Life ponies. And there's always an array of pleasant aromas wafting out of the kitchen.
The décor is one helluva urban-dive bar mash-up. Taxidermy — check. Frames without art — check. Checkered flooring — check. Galaga and Big Buck Hunter — check. Top it off with Edison light bulbs hanging from extension cords that are cleverly wrapped around pipes attached to the ceiling. This place screams "hipster." And, judging by the décor, I was sure I was going to see a menu filled with chili-cheese tots, jalapeño poppers, and chicken fingers, but the meal that followed was a pleasant surprise.
A plate of Chef Blake Joyal's blistered shishito peppers ($7) was just what the doctor ordered. A touch of cayenne added some extra heat, while a few fresh basil leaves and crumbled queso fresco cooled the palate.
Avocado was spread evenly on a perfectly rectangular piece of toast, and then topped with an ample amount of shaved pork, vibrant slices of orange and red pickled chilies, and sprigs of cilantro. Each bite released a salty, sour, umami explosion ($8).
A large hot dog loaded with chili, pimento cheese, and Worcestershire cream ($8) was messily scrumptious, but the Chicago Style stole the show. The dog sat between crisp, thinly sliced pickles and tomato wedges, all topped with finely chopped hot peppers, mustard seeds, and a whole lot of yellow mustard — a genuine flavor bomb ($8).
One of the biggest delights that night was a plate full of small rice patties that resembled discs of plantains. Lightly dressed in a combination of soy and oyster sauces, with a touch of basil, chilies, and scallions, the little pillows were salty sweet and quickly disappeared ($6).
Sweet peaches, tempura battered and fried, were served piping hot with a dollop of spicy cream cheese chili sauce and a few sprigs of dressed watercress ($7). Piquant, big, juicy, sweet, and bitter all at the same time. The dish got us excited enough to pass it around the bar to let others try. Everyone enjoyed it.
The rare beef tongue and duck tacos, on the other hand, suffered mightily from being displayed on stale, soggy corn tortillas ($5 each).
Overall, it was a good meal, one that had me telling my friends, but subsequent visits revealed a problem: consistency.
On a recent Thursday night, garlic was the theme. Bites of hot dogs came with whole garlic cloves, an otherwise tasty pork chop couldn't fight the garlic overload, and boiled peanuts were overcooked and overburdened with garlic. There was so much garlic that we were ready to throw in the towel halfway through the meal.
In an attempt to turn it around, we ordered those beloved little rice cakes. This time, they came out as small cylinders instead of discs and cost a whole dollar more ($7). They were mushy, and drowning in so much oyster and soy sauce that it was unbearable.
The medallions of rare beef would've been fine on their own, but they suffered from being drenched in a very fishy bagna càuda and bitter grilled radicchio ($16). The most successful dish of the night was a small bowl of little neck clams and orecchiette in a white wine sauce with parsley ($13), but the prominence of garlic ruled again.
Hoping that the visit was a fluke, I ventured to Hanover Street a third time, where I found some improvement, but consistent execution continued to haunt the kitchen. Those little rice cakes that I fell in love with the first time were now completely over cooked and hard to chew, though they weren't drowning in sauce this time. A big slab of roasted pork belly paired well with French lentils, mint, scallions, and bits of Granny Smith apple ($8), but the apple "jus" was gelatinous and reminiscent of baby food.
The spicy boiled peanuts ($3) had great flavor, but they were, once again, overcooked and hard to get out of their shells. The beef dish was exactly as I remembered it, with bitterness and fish overwhelming the red meat.
I understand the appeal of Palace Hotel. It's a watering hole that serves cheap, innovative dishes. When I walked in for the first time, I didn't know what to expect, but I left extremely happy. However, multiple attempts to recreate the level of satisfaction that made me want to go back for more ended in failure, the lack of consistency completely washing away my first impression.
With a little work, the Palace Hotel could be the hidden gem I once thought I'd found.
At least my final bite was memorable: a juicy beef patty with barbecue sauce, mushrooms, and cheddar, between a toasted English muffin. I can get on board with that.