By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In an age when old-school Chinese restaurants are nearing extinction, I don’t mind the occasional plate of chow mein that isn’t up to snuff, or kitschy décor that appears more obligatory than authentic. Just give me gentle prices on dishes made to order, and with a little jar of fiery chili oil parked alongside, and I end up happier than what any fortune cookie might predict.
Such was the case at New Maxim’s Palace, which has its perks and flaws, as well as mysteries.
Asian design elements of craft-store quality flow throughout an airy dining room that was clean and tidy. (The restroom, I must say, was particularly spotless.) Located in a fairly subdued strip plaza, we found ample parking.
Food portions are generous and prices are cheap, even after a minor cost increase recently imposed on combination meals available from afternoon until closing daily. The menu in general features all of the nostalgic classics – egg foo young, walnut shrimp, orange chicken, moo shu pork, etc. In addition, our waitress was efficient and sweeter than pie.
The restaurant’s age and ownership, however, remain in question despite my attempts to uncover the back story. In three separate calls I made to the restaurant, I learned that a woman named Kelly might be the owner — or perhaps the manager — and that the restaurant is somewhere between 10 and 20 years old. Nobody knew for sure.
Kelly wasn’t onsite when I phoned or visited, nor was she reachable through any means, an employee said. So I settled for the history described vaguely to us by our waitress, that the restaurant came under different ownership by an unspecified person or family a couple years ago, and the word “new” was prefixed to its name to differentiate it from the original Maxim’s Palace.
We encountered no riddles with the food. An order of crab Rangoon featured eight, prettily crimped pastry shells free of grease. Their cream cheese centers, however, contained only miniscule shreds of meat. Unless you’re dining in some posh Chinese hotspot in Hong Kong or New York, the chances of finding chunky pieces of crab inside this ubiquitous appetizer anymore are near zero.
A pair of chicken-vegetable egg rolls proved satisfying, given their crispy exteriors and plump fillings of mostly crispy, shredded cabbage. Served piping hot, we had to wait several minutes after splitting them open before they cooled down.
Three entrees we ordered ranged from exceptional to mediocre to sub par. Respectively, the barbecued-pork fried rice sported a highly desirable semi-toasted texture. Enriched substantially by wisps of cooked eggs and julienne pork marked by sweet, barbecued edges, it’s exactly the preparation Chinese kitchens throughout North America have been slinging for decades to lure us back.
Moo shu pork carried the coveted, smoky flavor from the wok as well as the raisin-like essence of hoisin sauce lacing the dish. But the meat was cut into bite-size pieces rather than minced, which is the preferred method for striking a texture consistent with the finely shredded vegetables stir-fried with it. Also, the thin Chinese pancakes served traditionally alongside suspiciously resembled flour tortillas rather than delicate crepes. So moo shu burritos it was.
A heaping pile of chicken chow mein required every condiment on the table to rescue it from blandness. We created an admixture of equal parts soy sauce, feisty chili oil and neon-red sweet and sour sauce to enhance the flavor. It worked beautifully, probably better than monosodium glutamate (MSG) would have, had we not requested that the controversial taste stimulator be omitted from our orders.
Because of New Maxim’s vast meal selections, which encompass Cantonese, Mandarin and a few Szechwan-style dishes, it would take repeat visits to accurately evaluate the food and figure out who’s running the place. Though based on this single meal, I suspect there are several more winners other than the chubby egg rolls and fluffy fried rice hiding within the menu.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.