It must be something about the kitchen design of Chinese restaurants that makes them remain Chinese restaurants through different owners. Such is the case at Palais de Jade, the latest business to occupy the storefront in the Wando Crossing shopping center in Mt. Pleasant. There has been fairly significant renovation inside, with perhaps the best detail being removal of the dreadful buffet from the last tenant, Hong Kong Buffet. There's also been some happy revisions in the kitchen, resulting in a diverse and uncommon (for Charleston) menu of Mandarin, Szechuan and Hunan dishes.
Soon after hearing they were open, I ducked in to grab some quick lunch, and went straight for an old guilty pleasure, General Tso's Chicken (here simply "General's Chicken"). For $6.95, one gets soup, an egg roll, and the chicken — not a bad deal. I went for hot and sour soup and found it to be a notch above the ubiquitous "regular" hot and sour, with chicken and tofu added to the usual mix of ingredients. The egg roll was not your standard greasy, soggy roll, either — light, crisp, and at least appearing house-made. As for the General's Chicken, large pieces of what was clearly chicken (not the teeny mystery bits found in some renditions) were lightly coated with batter and swam in a delightful spicy-sweet sauce studded with a few whole dried cayenne peppers. Excellent.
Some days later, I went in for a big take-out order to feed some visiting relatives. David Liu, part-owner and front-of-house manager, cheerfully scribbled everything down in what looked like some form of Mandarin. His enthusiasm and professionalism were refreshing. Egg drop ($3), hot and sour ($3), and "Wor Won Ton" (medium, $6) soups. The Wor Won Ton was superior — crisp snow peas and large shrimp packed alongside fat, meat-filled wontons. Steamed potstickers for the wife ($6 for 6) were large, meaty, and seemed housemade as well. For entrées, one member of the group had her heart set on chicken and broccoli, a dish which does not appear on the menu — Liu asked a couple of questions and said he could whip something up for her, which he did. The Mongolian Beef ($10) was very good, with a faintly spicy brown sauce, onions, and lots of beef, although not what I would consider deserving of that little "hot and spicy" chili icon on the menu. Likewise for the orange beef — lightly breaded slices of beef, fried along with slices of orange peel and dried chilis — delicious, incorporating high-quality ingredients, but nowhere near "hot and spicy." A little Sriracha will fix that right up...
The mu shu pork ($8) was a classic rendition of the classic dish, with so many different ingredients it's hard for one to sort them all out — bean sprouts, napa cabbage, mushrooms, egg, celery, and a bunch more all mingled with slices of pork, complete with the pancakes and plum sauce. We happily made the Chinese version of the burrito until we ran out of pancakes, and then ate the rest of the filling all by itself. Lastly, we got an order of the Singapore-style rice noodles ($9), attempting to follow the wife's directive to "get her something like a Pad Kee Mow." While the dish is essentially nothing like Pad Kee Mow, it is a tasty sauté of very thin noodles, curry flavors, and various meats. I normally abhor curry flavor, but this dish really worked for me.
I went back for the fish. The menu lists three kinds of whole fish — two crispy kinds and one steamed (all market priced, in this case $19). I called in advance to have the steamed variety ready when we arrived (we had an appointment at 6 p.m. that night), as the menu states to allow 45 minutes for preparation. Seated in our comfy booth, we ordered up the abalone and black mushroom soup (medium, $10) and some salt and pepper calamari ($7, labeled hot and spicy and, again, not actually so), both of which were delicious. The soup was a delicate clear broth with abundant thin slices of abalone, small chunks of napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, while the calamari was fat, tender strips of steak-style squid (not those silly little rings), fried crisp with just enough batter and salted and peppered to a delicious end. The fish appeared to be a nice black sea bass — ordered with the scallion sauce option — and was delivered whole and head-on, then expertly deboned tableside by the beaming Mr. Liu. While bones still remained outside of the removed spine, the fish was fresh-tasting, moist, and delicious. Definitely a welcome departure from standard American Chinese stuff.
We paid up and headed for the door, making a solemn pledge that we'd be back soon. After all, there's still Peking Duck to be had. And salt and pepper prawns. And crispy fish, and Cantonese lobster, and walnut-honey shrimp, and Kung Pao scallops and ...