When a man sets off to build an empire, he usually travels through uncharted territory, conquering exotic foreign lands. But Johnny Hsu stuck with the tried and true, never straying from familiar fare when he opened a mammoth near-copy of his Imperial restaurant ten miles to the southeast.

"I wanted to create a Chinatown in Denver," explains Hsu, who once also owned La Chine and Jade Garden. "And I wanted to have an inexpensive restaurant with healthy food. I think that the way things are going, people want healthier food, and they don't want MSG.

"The customer is very fickle," he adds, "so we couldn't change the way we have done things at Imperial, because then they will say, `Why did you change this?' and they won't come back. So we figured, right from the start, we will offer this kind of food for a very reasonable price."

Unfortunately, in the case of Palace Chinese Restaurant, less isn't more.
Although Palace prices are reasonable--no dish on the menu costs more than $8, and they all come with soup and rice--the portions are modest. So, for that matter, is the selection. Hsu and executive chef George Yu went back and forth for some time before coming up with the current roster. "People accept the menu very cheerfully now," Hsu says. "We're not going to add anything more at this point, but we do offer specials to give some variety." And they could use it, because most of the fifteen listed entrees are standard fare such as sesame chicken, Hunan beef and mu shu pork. The regular entrees only stray twice: A chicken and a pork dish are both done in what Hsu calls a "vinaigrette" and further describes as his "Grandma's sweet-and-sour sauce."

The soup-and-appetizer lineup is no more adventurous. The requisite hot-and-sour soup ($1.50 a la carte) grows on you; its watered-down base defies any analysis of animal origins, but the cumulative spiciness can't be denied. Chicken was the supposed source of the stock in the soup of the day, egg drop ($1.50), but the broth carried no chicken flavor whatsoever, and someone trying to get rid of a lot of unripe tomatoes had diced and dumped them in along with the egg whites. The fried cheese wontons ($3.95), eight blessedly non-oily skins wrapped around too little cream cheese, came with a duck sauce that tasted of spiced fruit and was so heavy on cloves that it overwhelmed the wontons. The scallion pancake ($3.25) arrived with an equally irritating, vinegary dipping sauce that did little to cut through the oil (albeit cholesterol-free oil, we were told) soaking the plate-size pancake.

Our main courses were inoffensive, if unexciting. For the beef in orange sauce ($7.95), strips of meat had been pounded until they were as soft as mashed potatoes, then quickly fried to seal in the juices--which also prevented the orange sauce from getting too sticky. An order of walnut prawns ($8.95), ten jumbo shrimp sharing space with delectable caramelized walnuts, was more inventive, but looked better than it worked. Both items were difficult to cut down to size (especially with chopsticks)--just try getting half a walnut and a large shrimp in your mouth at the same time. We wound up eating it as two separate dishes: First a walnut, then a bite of prawn coated with a strange, slightly sugary, slightly cheesy white sauce that coagulated into something akin to denture paste once it cooled off.

There must have been quite a run on unripe tomatoes that day, because half-slices of the fruit--core, ends and all--surrounded our meals. Not only did the tomato taste do nothing for the rest of the food, but the omnipresent garnish was unsettling. Otherwise, the Palace is short on presentation: a pineapple chunk here, a cherry and a parsley sprig there.

Despite the name of the place, the Palace's decor is equally spartan. Hsu says he opted for a less ornate feel than that of Imperial's, and he directed the designer from Shanghai to go with a softer look and lighter colors. Imperial fans will recognize the diagonal table setup and a few of the carvings, but may be taken aback by the cool, vast interior of the Palace. It's big for a reason: Hsu wants to appeal to the wedding-and-banquet crowd. He's already booking them in, much to the chagrin of a few unsuspecting diners who stopped in one recent Saturday night only to be shuffled into a side room next to 250 revelers and a live band. "We had a few people who were not happy," Hsu admits. "They said they wish they had known about the party. We try to keep the noise down, but we have to do what is best for everyone. We felt bad that some were unhappy."

We'd made a return visit for lunch that day, and weren't thrilled by the distracting sight and sound of two gentlemen hammering away as they set up the dance floor, piece by piece, a mere eight feet away. If the food had been more absorbing, we might not have minded--but this was a reprise of our disappointing dinner, with only a few variations on the theme. This time the egg drop soup contained corn instead of tomatoes--a more successful addition. The sesame chicken ($4.25) had been pounded into a state of submission, then smothered in a not-too-sweet sauce that desperately cried out for a hint of heat. And an order of happy family ($4.25), a combination of pork, shrimp, chicken, broccoli and carrots that the menu notes "makes everybody happy," probably does so simply because its taste is so inoffensively bland.

We had higher hopes for Imperial, which some people had told us is the best Chinese spot in town (although others warned that it has gone downhill). Having lived in Denver less than a year, we had no basis for comparison--except Hsu's Palace. The food at Imperial was just as dull, if more ambitious. From the extensive soup choices, we settled on the house special soup for two ($4.50) and were satisfied with the consomme-style broth with real crabmeat, pork, shrimp and somewhat crunchy vegetables. But the sesame chicken ($8.25), called "hot & spicy" on the menu, was more sweet than anything else, and a tad soggy to boot. The Neptune Imperial ($12.95) featured beautiful jumbo scallops, sliced halibut and more real crab--but it was all sitting in a bland, nebulous "white sauce."

If there's one thing both the Palace and Imperial do right, it's dessert (the two restaurants buy their delicacies at an undisclosed source). We relished every bit of the tasty ginger ice cream and raspberry sorbet ($1.50 each), eating both so quickly they never had time to melt.

By then, though, our tastebuds were desperate for something to catch their attention.


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