This place has scared the hell out of me for nearly 29 years.
That’s how long I’ve been driving past it, usually as I turn left onto South Orange Blossom Trail from Michigan Street heading for the on-ramp to Interstate-4. It’s a route I’ve taken probably thousands of times. And most of those times I’ve been conscious of glancing at the freestanding boxy building with the yellow plastic sign across the top, just over the windows clad with metal bars, with the name China Palace Restaurant and a couple of Chinese characters.
Who goes there? I wondered. What must it look like inside? Do people really eat there? And then I’d turn my attention to the traffic ahead and gird myself for the only thing scarier, a drive on the moving hell that is I-4.
But like I said, I’ve been passing China Palace for almost 29 years, ever since I moved to Central Florida to begin reviewing restaurants. Nearly three decades in a town of fickle diners. A new question began to needle me: How has it lasted so long?
We’re in the midst of the Lunar New Year festival, which began on Saturday. And since this is designated the Year of the Rooster, I decided to stop being so chicken.
So this time I made the left hand turn from Michigan Street onto Orange Blossom Trail and then veered right into one of the parking spaces directly in front of China Palace.
I can’t say my trepidation eased any. Not as I got out of my car and not as I opened the door to get my first look inside.
It was not what I expected. It is much larger than it looks from the outside. There is a lot of empty floor space, and all seating is at booths of mismatched styles, mostly the type one associated more with fast-food restaurants, with bare tabletops — no place settings or condiments, not even paper placemats. Nothing. The walls are covered with typical Chinese posters and symbols, and there are the occasional paper lanterns. But while some of the sidelines appeared cluttered, the linoleum tiles on the floor appeared to be well scrubbed.
Only two tables were occupied. One held a disheveled man who looked up at me from his plate of food and eyed me with suspicion. Two men sat at another table across the room. They had a device on their table, possibly a smartphone, that played Latino music through a tinny speaker. Their music competed quietly with the Asian songs playing in the background.
There was no one else in sight. And I felt conspicuous standing by the front door. It didn’t look like the sort of place that requires a host to seat the guests, so I sidled over to one of the tables and took a seat. And waited. And tried to suppress the voice of experience that was screaming at me inside my head to go.
But I stayed, and after several minutes a small woman came out from the back room and strolled along a counter that ran along one wall and called to me. “You want to order? Over here.”
The menu sat atop the counter, which looked like perhaps it had once been part of a short-order diner restaurant. There were more entries than I expected and the menu was laden with Americanized versions of Chinese dishes. Not wanting to take a long time to consider, I quickly requested Egg Drop Soup and Pork Egg Foo Young.
She repeated the order back to me and said, “All to go.” It was more of a statement than a question, so I said yes. She punched the numbers into a handheld calculator that sat on a cluttered table behind her. The order came to just under $10. I handed her a 20 — didn’t even think about a credit card — and she gave me back a few coins and a 10 dollar bill; nothing for a tip.
I returned to my seat, relieved that I had some ones in my wallet, and busied myself with my phone while I waited for my food.
It wasn’t long. The woman came back out, called me over the to counter and handed me a plastic bag with my food containers inside. I handed her the bills and her face lit up. “For me?”
And the food was — OK. The soup was a bit more orangey than most you see but less glutinous than some, and it had lots of eggy feathers in it.
There were three of the egg foo young omelets and each held plenty of cubed pork as well as scallions and bean sprouts. The soup came with a small bag of wonton strips and there was a small container of brown gravy for the omelets, which benefitted from the saltiness of the soy drizzled from one of the plastic packets that had been tossed into the bag.
There were no chopsticks and no fortune cookie. Neither was expected (or missed).
Before I left the restaurant I asked the woman how long the restaurant had been there. She thought for a moment and then said that it had opened in 1972. The year I graduated from high school. At 45, China Palace is among the older restaurants in the area. Few come to mind that are older, though Lee & Rick’s would be one.
And if going into Lee & Rick’s doesn’t give you pause, neither should China Palace.
China Palace is at 2740 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. There is no website. The phone number is 407-423-2958.