Restaurant Review: China Palace (Middletown, NJ)

Harmony Lanes has been around forever. I moved to this area in 1995 and remember going there with my parents at a young age. They have a Chinese restaurant attached to it called China Palace. When I say attached, I mean the restaurant is part of the building. You can access the alley through there, though the alley also has a second entrance. I thought the place closed down years ago. I was under the impression the restaurant went out of business, the lanes lasted a few more years, and then shut down. Maybe the restaurant was gone for decades and the sign remained? No idea. There were never any cars in the parking lot anymore. But the last year or so now I have noticed a major crowd and kept telling myself I had to stop in and check the place out, to investigate if this mysterious China Palace was in business or only a memory.

Two months ago, I literally did just that. Justin and I walked in and lo and behold, the restaurant existed! And they had a bar! The inside is dark, drab, and kind of morose (the alley ain’t nothing to look at either). It was the kind of atmosphere you would get if a place had its glory days in the 80’s and never did anything to update. It was lunch time but they had a few tables taken– all Chinese clientèle. A little more investigating online revealed this place is Taiwanese…and authentic at that. The prices were outstanding. On the lunch menu, nothing topped $8.50. Reviews online boasted excellent food quality with snippy service. That was evident on my first visit. I was not eating there, just wanted a menu. When I asked for one, she ran and got one, slapped it into my hands and said, “Here go.” I don’t know if she meant “Here you go” or “Here! Go!”

Despite being a hole in the wall, the kind of hidden spot that takes detective work to find, I imagine they are successful between the nearby Asian population of Holmdel and also the copious amounts of bowlers in the evening and on weekends. Who wouldn’t want to rack up strikes with some chicken and broccoli and pitchers of beer? Them having a bar was a real shocker. It is small, like House of Chong’s, but full-service. I don’t know how they afford their liquor license unless they do drinks for the bowling alley as well. Honestly, I was expecting a horror show. Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” started playing as we sat down. I thought, “Gee, some reviews really do write themselves”.

Anyway, Justin and I stopped in today to finally try the food. I tried to take it all in: the bar with enormous handles of liquor that probably never get poured, bar mirrors and beer signs on every wall acting as decor, and very appropriate “bowling alley carpeting”. The service was not as snippy as on that first visit. The waitress was pleasant and did not rush us. I got the feeling she was one of the owners. She was attentive and brought over hot tea to start us off. On my way out, I stopped to ask how long the place had been there, to satisfy my curiosity. She said, “25 years” before pausing with a smile, “Time to retire soon”. I truly believe the room which now holds this restaurant was a party room for the bowling alley until the early 90’s when it switched over. It takes some contemplating now to decide what I truly felt about how this place looked. Drab as it may be, the dated atmosphere gives it a certain charm.

But you don’t go to a restaurant to stare at the walls. How was the food? We started with the wontons in hot oil. They arrived in an impressive portion and covered in coriander. They had a similar look to the glorious product Sichuan Cottage puts out, but they just were not the same. The wontons themselves were flavorful and chewy (in a good way). I think maybe they were steamed earlier and then reheated in the sauce. Unfortunately it was not very spicy. However, the addition of the herbs on top really gave it an entirely different taste than what I am used to. That seemed to be the theme throughout this meal: coriander on almost everything. Is this what separates Chinese from Taiwanese cuisine or is it just a quirk of the restaurant? Either way, it provided a unique burst of flavor with each bite.

Next to arrive were bowls of complimentary soup and kimchi. As most of the menu was not in English, I was not expecting this. The soup was like a hot and sour soup, with mushrooms, tofu, scallions, and tons of black pepper—it was actually spicier than the wontons because of this. I thought it was delicious. For meals, we decided to share three things. The first was advertised on the menu as a “deep fried meatball”. This piqued our interest and for only $5 we figured we had to have whatever the hell a deep fried Chinese meatball could possibly be. In addition to that, we ordered pork and mushroom sticky rice along with the chicken cutlet with minced pork sauce.

When the meatball came we quickly saw that it was two meatballs. Another enormous portion. Rather than being what most would think of as a “meatball”, they were instead over-sized steamed pork buns which were probably flash fried and then covered in a sweet sauce with finely chopped peanuts and you guessed it, more coriander. This simple dish managed to cover a range of flavors and textures: there was sweet, salty, savory, chewy, soft, tender, and crunchy. It was probably my favorite item of all that we ordered. As someone who has eaten my weight ten times over in Asian food, I had never seen such a thing before. I would get it again next time.

The pork and mushrooms with sticky rice was my least favorite. It was not bad, but when it came I immediately recognized what a “safe” order this was. I guess I was not expecting essentially a fried rice dish that used sticky rice instead of regular white rice. I figured there would be pork and mushrooms in a sauce with the rice on the side. I was wrong, but it still tasted fine and the stickiness made it super easy to eat with chopsticks. I would not get this again just because there are so many more interesting items on the menu. Justin’s fried chicken cutlet ended up taking home the award for most interesting. The cutlet appeared to be a thigh with the bone removed and then hammered out. It was crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. The seasoning was salty without overdoing it. The fact that this cutlet was mainly dark meat added to the flavor. The rice on the side came with a wonderful minced pork sauce. The pork melted away in my mouth. Also included were some steamed bok choy and a preserved egg which did not really taste like much.

Overall, we found ourselves thoroughly satisfied and stuffed to the point of having leftovers. I had to ask myself, “Is this good food or just good food for a bowling alley?” The answer is no, this was actually good. The prices were low, the portions large, and the quality was there. Six tables were taken for this lunchtime meal, all Asian except for one other customer. That’s a good sign. Almost everyone else had soup as a meal, so that is probably the direction I will go next time (more than half the menu is soup-based).

I will add that eating at China Palace is a bit tricky because of their hours. They are open from 11:30 am until 2 PM and then close until opening again from 5-8 PM. This was not fine cuisine but given everything mentioned above and how close this is to my house, I will certainly swing by if we feel like a quick, cheap Asian meal in a restaurant rather than takeout. I cannot say the quality was any lower than the pricier House of Chong or Crown Palace. Sometimes looks can be deceiving. If you told me I’d be giving a positive review to such a place, I would have thought you were crazy. Give this dive a chance and have yourself a 90’s bowling alley-themed food adventure. (Never thought such a sentence would ever be written on this blog!) 3.5 out of 5 stars.

China Palace is located at Harmony Lanes, at 1815 NJ-35 in Middletown, NJ.

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