I found myself licking my fingers often at King Palace in North Miami Beach. When I assembled Peking duck — with crisp skin, translucent fat and dark flesh cut in a perfect cube — into a puffy bao bun and smeared it with hoisin sauce, I licked. When I untangled a mess of cracked Dungeness crab in black-bean sauce spiked with shards of jalapeno pepper and picked meat from claws and the carapace, I licked. When I poked my fingers through meat-packed knuckles of Maine lobster in ginger scallion sauce, I licked. And after I was done gnawing on dry spice lamb chops coated with crunchy bits of garlic that resembled bread crumbs, I licked.
On my first visit, I also found myself shaking my head in wonder and muttering: “How is it possible that this restaurant has been here 16 years, and I have never been?”
Fortunately, that dry spell has ended. And I’m here to say, with all the authority of an arrogant native New Yorker who constantly carps about the overall sad state of Chinese food in South Florida, that King Palace is good. Perhaps not San Francisco good, but certainly New York Chinatown good. It is definitely among the best authentic Chinese restaurants in South Florida, a list that includes Pine Court Asian Bistro in Sunrise and Gold Marquess in Pembroke Pines for dim sum and Hong Kong City BBQ in Tamarac for roasted meats. And before fans of Silver Pond in Lauderdale Lakes start calling to harangue, my most recent visits there have been disappointing.
I’m happy to report King Palace endured Hurricane Irma with no damage, and the restaurant is back in business. It reopened Wednesday after getting power restored.
My first experience at King Palace was revelatory. It is a no-frills spot with humble decor and atmosphere but the food was mostly delicious. The menu allows guests to be as adventurous or as American as they want to be. It offers jellyfish, steamed frog and boneless duck feet and also General Tao’s chicken, moo goo gai pan and Kung Pow shrimp. The building is painted mustard yellow with red trim, and the interior is a bit grungy. King Palace is located on a pocket of Northeast 167th Street teeming with Asian markets and restaurants, just east of I-95 and the spaghetti tangle of the Golden Glades Interchange.
I was taken with a large group by friends, longtime regulars, who insisted I try the place. Similar to Silver Pond, King Palace has tanks filled with live fish, lobster and other sea creatures all plucked on the spot and cooked fresh when ordered. Our party of eight sat at one of the large round tables with a lazy Susan.
Some dishes were a bit greasy, including the wide flat noodle with braised beef ($14), but everything tasted good. We gorged on lobster with ginger-scallion sauce, crab with black-bean sauce, flowering chive with sliced fish cake, and seafood pan-fried noodles. We devoured a sizzling hot pot of fish balls with tofu and Chinese mushrooms in a brown bath of oyster sauce, a dish every bit as comforting as an Italian Sunday gravy with meatballs, or a pot of matzo ball soup. We picked apart a whole fried fish, described as flounder, topped with crunchy bits of roasted garlic. I spooned extra garlic bits from the fish and leftover sauce from each dish onto a mound of white rice, a tasty melange. I liked this place very much.
Two days later, I returned for a late lunch, this time with a crew that included a former San Franciscan. He gave it the thumbs-up, although our lobster with ginger scallion ($32) and Dungeness crab with black-bean sauce ($45) were marred by sauces with too much cornstarch. The sauces were better and more nuanced on the first visit, perhaps because the servers knew a regular’s preferences. The menu states that cornstarch, MSG, oils and other ingredients can be adjusted, something I’ll be sure to request next time. And there will be many next times.
The roast-duck noodle soup ($9), a big bowl ladled tableside by our friendly server, is comfort food I could eat every day, particularly during storm season.. The noodles were thin and firm and the broth aromatic, but the cleaved pieces of duck required some deft handling to avoid bone shards. The dry-spice lamb rack ($20) took grease and cornstarch-marred sauce out of the equation, with perfectly cooked chops coated in Chinese five spice topped with bits of roasted garlic, jalapeno and scallions. Salt-and-pepper shrimp with shells on ($17) were crunchy outside and plump inside. The Peking duck ($29 for half duck) again was exquisite, the hoisin sauce perfectly composed and not sweet, and the duck a marvelous triple decker of skin, fat and flesh.
King Palace has some quirks, but I like quirks. The menu features advertisements from a real estate agent. One wall features a new decoration that has backlit blue waves and a bright purple circle featuring a drawing of two long-haired Hellenic women in togas who appear to be wrestling. A single roasted duck, its beak pointed forlornly to the floor, hangs behind glass near the front register and busy kitchen.
King Palace has been run by the same family since opening. Matriarch Li Yan Wu is the owner, daughter Mei Wu runs the front of the house and son Chris Wu is the chef. The Wus emigrated from China to Venezuela in the 1980s and ran a restaurant in Caracas until strongman Hugo Chavez came to power. The Wus came to Miami in 1999, worked in restaurants and saved enough to open King Palace two years later. Venezuela’s loss is South Florida’s gain. I finally found a Chinese restaurant that feels like home.
King Palace Chinese BBQ
330 NE 167th St., North Miami Beach
Cost: Inexpensive to moderate with some expensive specialties. Appetizers and soups cost $5 to $14. Rice, noodle and vegetable dishes $6 to $15. Meat and seafood dishes $12 to $30. Peking duck, lobster and Dungeness crab $30 to $60. No dessert.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Reservations: Accepted for large groups
Credit cards: Mastercard and Visa. No American Express
Bar: Limited beer and wine
Noise level: Convivial when crowded
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot