Palace in a Strip Mall

Thai China Palace offers tasty food and plenty of open seating at lunchtime.

Unlike many places, Tucson's slow season is the summer. And there's an obvious reason for that: It's kind of hot.

I have to remember this so I don't get weirded out by walking into a fairly well-regarded restaurant and seeing the place totally empty.

This is what happened on a recent Thursday at Thai China Palace, located in a small strip mall on bustling Speedway Boulevard. I walked into the small restaurant with Irene Messina at 12:45 p.m., and it was completely empty. The man who greeted us almost seemed startled to see us.

This worried me. Usually, it's a good sign for a restaurant to be busy, because of that whole repeat business thing. And dead restaurants can be a bad sign for the same reason.

Thankfully, my worries were unfounded. The lunch ended up being a nice, if somewhat lonely, experience. In the 45 minutes or so we were there, only one other party, consisting of one person, came in the restaurant. He was seated in one corner of the room; we were seated in the opposite corner.

Like many Asian restaurants, Thai China Palace has a series of inexpensive lunch combo specials, along with the regular full-portion entrées for lunch and dinner. And in the case of Thai China Palace, they have two menus--one Chinese and one Thai--in one. Hence the name. (Although I must say, the décor--while pleasant and clean, featuring white walls, glass-covered red tablecloths, vases with fake flowers and framed prints and tapestries on the walls--didn't catalyze an image of a palace in my head.)

Irene, who's a vegetarian, in case you've forgotten, decided to order the vegetarian pad Thai lunch special ($4.25; for a dinner entrée alone, $5.95), which--like all the lunch specials--came with steamed rice, an egg roll or fried won ton and either egg drop or hot and sour soup. Irene chose the egg roll and egg drop soup. For the sake of reviewing as much as possible, I ordered two dishes--the panang curry chicken ($4.50 lunch special, $7.95 entrée) with an egg roll and the hot and sour soup and the cashew chicken ($4.25 lunch special, $6.95 entrée). My modus operandi was to eat the panang curry chicken for lunch and to merely sample the cashew chicken, and then take it to-go for another meal.

Our soups were delivered promptly--and, like Tucson's summer, they came hot. Make that burn-yourself-if-you're-not-careful hot. After letting them cool a bit, we found them both to be delightful. Irene mentioned that while her egg drop soup was a bit salty, it redeemed itself with its overall good flavor, highlighted by an abundance of egg. My hot and sour soup also was delicious, with just the right amount of a spicy kick.

After the soups, we sipped on our drinks--Irene had a Coke ($1) and I enjoyed a strong Thai iced tea ($1.25)--and wondered, based on the tasty soups, why in the world the restaurant wasn't busier.

The main courses didn't disappoint, either. My panang curry, chicken with bay leaves and coconut milk (it normally comes with bell peppers, but they held them on my request), was delicious. The curry wasn't overwhelming--I could taste the tender chicken--and, like the soup, it had a nice kick. The rice was fluffy, and the egg roll was simple and run-off-the-mill.

Irene said only kind things about her pad Thai. She said the veggies (including mini corn, cabbage and broccoli) were abundant and fresh, and the noodles with egg, green onion and bean sprouts were tasty.

I only took a bite or two of the cashew chicken. It came in a brown gravy with lots of water chestnuts and--because I forgot to have them held--bell peppers. It was also hot almost to the point of being molten (this is fine with me; cool food, at least when it's supposed to be hot, worries me), but tasty. I would have liked more cashews. Granted, I like cashews a great deal. (And reheated for dinner, the dish was excellent.)

For dessert, Irene decided to try the fried banana ($2), battered and then glazed with honey. It arrived in three orange-colored pieces. While it wasn't awful, it wasn't the meal's highlight. The frying and the flavorless batter took away most of the banana taste, and there wasn't enough honey.

Nonetheless, the meal was an overall good experience. Irene and I both agreed that it's worth the trip from our southside office--even in the hot Tucson summer weather.

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