Ethnic-food fans generally fall into two broad categories. There are the squeamish folks for whom a little authenticity goes a long way. On those rare occasions when they seek an encounter with the genuine home-country fare of faraway peoples, it's usually through the Food Channel.
At the other end of the spectrum are the ethnic-restaurant anthropologists. These culinary specialists make a fetish of knowing just how natives all over the globe prepare dinner. They'll tell you where Mongols graze their prized yak, how Laplanders marinate reindeer, and what seasonings New Guinea tribesmen like to sprinkle on neighboring villagers.
The Valley caters to both tastes. If the sight of chopsticks, chicken feet and foreign-born diners makes you feel anxious, the unthreatening Chinese experience at the new Jade Palace will put you at ease. If, however, you prefer dining in storefront ethnic shacks, with struggling air conditioning, homesick natives and budget-priced daily specials posted on the wall, the Vietnamese experience at Khai Hoan should win you over.
Jade Palace is a Scottsdale Chinese restaurant. What does that mean? It means the Asian staff speaks perfect English. It means the tables are covered with crisp white linen and lined with forks, spoons and knives. (Ask for chopsticks, and your server will blink with disbelief.) It means soothing Chopin waltzes are gently piped in, to make you feel as if you're dining in a salon. It means you aren't likely to find any customers here who hail from the mysterious East, unless you mean folks who live in the new subdivisions sprouting east of Pima Road. You will, however, run into lots of authentic Scottsdalians: women who pour on perfume with a bucket, accompanied by loud husbands who love the sound of their own voices.
It means, too, the place is very pretty, in a prosperously suburban way. Tiered dining areas inject a note of elegance. Cactus arrangements dot the room. And there are just enough Chinese touches--vases, paintings, silk flowers--to remind you that you're in a Chinese restaurant.
Depending on your point of view, Jade Palace's fare is either breathtakingly boring or reassuringly familiar. If you're the type of Chinese-food fan who likes to roam Grant Street in San Francisco or Mott Street in New York prowling for native delicacies, a visit here makes no sense. If, on the other hand, you can't imagine a Chinese meal without those two little bowls of hot mustard and duck sauce, this place will remove your trepidation.
My concern about Jade Palace, however, isn't about its Chinese-food concept. After all, sometimes even the most ardent seekers of exotic Asian fare long for the kind of Chinese dishes that Mom used to take out. It's the execution that troubles me. The kitchen doesn't seem to realize that unthreatening fare doesn't have to mean dull.
That's especially true of the appetizers, which range from awful to blah, not a range most of us feel at home on. Barbecued pork, doused in an innocuous sauce devoid of soy, ginger or garlic energy, has no ethnic character whatsoever. Fried shrimp, fried won tons and greasy egg rolls furnish your daily recommended allowance of oil, but that's about the extent of their appeal. Paper-wrapped chicken is loaded with salt, and the skewered beef looks (and tastes) distressingly like processed gyro meat. The chewy spare ribs won't make any highlight reels, either.
Don't bother with the lackluster soups, which could have come from a can. The two we sampled arrived lukewarm. Both the spinach with bean curd and won-ton models relied on watery broths that seemed to be seasoned with nothing more potent than air. And the kitchen is much too frugal about stocking them with solids.
Occasionally, Jade Palace's main dishes show flashes of talent. Seafood in a Love Nest is a compelling mix of scallops, shrimp and real crab nestled in a crispy taro-root shell, surrounded by broccoli, snow peas and straw mushrooms.
Noodle dishes are also right on target. Singapore-style rice noodles feature a hearty mound of thin vermicelli studded with shrimp, chicken and pork, all bathed in a tangy, spicy, curry-tinged sauce. Chow fun, thick rice noodles, are also well-fashioned, armed with a real Chinatown flavor.
Why those lively ethnic elements disappear from most everything else is a mystery I can't solve. Steak Kew, for example, brings lots of tender filet mignon and veggies. But it doesn't offer a single clue as to its Chinese origins. Yes, I know the people who are drawn to Jade Palace aren't interested in far-out native dishes. But surely they're not so skittish that they want every ethnic trace removed altogether?