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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist
One of our longtime favorites for Chinese food has been the Peking Palace in the northeast on Auburn Street, up at the very edge of town before you drive toward the old Mesa Marin/Rio Bravo area and up at the mouth of the canyon to Lake Isabella.
Imagine our surprise on a recent visit when we learned there had been a change of ownership, though whether it was recent or not was something that was lost in translation. It was two months ago, three years ago, or five years ago. Someone on Facebook said it was two years ago. Our waitress said it was mostly just a legal name thing, though as a result, the beer and wine license is gone and you're limited to iced tea. My companion, brother-in-law and I had never, until that day, ever consumed moo shu pork without a fine draft nearby. That precedent has now fallen.
5600 Auburn St.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 4 to 9 p.m. every day.
Prices: Lunch specials, $6.75 to $8.25; appetizers, $4.29 to $12.95; soups, $1.99 to $14.99; combo dinners, $9.99 to $11.99; vegetarian plates, $7.49 to $9.49; family dinners, $10.99 to $18.99; chef's specials, $10.49 to $13.99.
Payment: MasterCard and VISA accepted. American Express, Discover and personal checks not accepted.
Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; no alcohol served; many vegetarian options.
Also missing is that wonderfully cranky, insulting waitress whom I believe was named Alice. There's a whole restaurant chain named Dick's that specializes in using an insulting wait staff, so I always wondered what it was that made people crave her withering insults and general surliness. On this visit, our waitress was positively pleasant.
Here's why I've liked it more than most places over the years:
Fresh, fresh, fresh ingredients. Especially the snow peas.
Food was not greasy.
The wide variety of Chinese cuisines, all done well. Some specialize in Szechuan, or Hunan, and can't do Mandarin. Not so here.
They were against trans fats way early, and I never got an MSG headache after eating here. So many places say "no MSG" but my tongue and, a few hours later, my head say, "Really?" Not here.
They brag on the menu about using ocean shrimp instead of farm-raised, chicken breast instead of chicken leg, pork loin instead of pork rump. I'm OK with chicken leg, but definitely feel the other choices are important to boost the quality of the fare.
What I didn't like about the place is the tacky, overdone decorations, which I've been assured by friends are absolutely authentic but look a lot to me like a gaudy movie set decor that screams Chinese restaurant. There are gold tiles, some areas were dark on the night we visited, the carpet and chairs looked worn, and a fish tank near the entrance had been around. I wouldn't take anyone here to impress them, I'll tell you that. Even old institutions like Bill Lee's get makeover from time to time.
On our most recent visit we mostly stuck to the "Chef's Specials" section of the menu, ordering the mango beef ($10.99), honey walnut shrimp ($11.99) cashew chicken ($8.99), lo mein noodles with chicken ($7.99) and the moo shu pork ($8.99).
The shrimp were not up to the level of Great Castle's version -- whose are? -- but the dish was still decent: crunchy, thick batter, no greasiness and some broccoli on the platter with creamy, not too-sweet sauce.
The beef was interesting with strips of fresh-cut mango and a red pepper paste that added a real punch, though we wish more veggies were thrown into the mix. The sweet and spicy notes of this dish reminded us of good Thai food.
The cashew chicken had a great mix of ingredients: fresh mushrooms, miniature corn cobs, green peppers, white onions.
The lo mein noodles were mixed with water chestnuts and zucchini strips. The moo shu pork was assembled in the kitchen rather than tableside, but we found out that a male human being can indeed consume such things without beers, foreign or domestic. Good to know.
Service was attentive, deferential and not once were we insulted. Our self-esteem is really healthy.
Peking Palace can still be recommended for a fine dining experience, no matter who owns it.