Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
All due respect to the woman who greeted us at the host podium at Imperial Palace. With her thick eyeliner, rhinestone-spangled jacket from the Michael Jackson collection, blindingly flashy rings, and multi-zippered, body-hugging pants, she belonged with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at yesterday's Hunky Jesus contest in Dolores Park. As a gay man, I was contractually obligated to be impressed.
Several seconds after she assigned us a number in line, though, she disappeared, and a man in a much less reflective suit gathered my friend and me together with three women and ushered us all to a large round table in the main dining room.
Outside the Chinese American community, Imperial Palace is better known for hosting performances of Assisted Living: The Musical and Tony & Tina's Wedding in the upstairs ballroom. The downstairs is known for budget dim sum and fading glamour: swagged curtains around the perimeter, wooden parquet aisles laid over tattered burgundy carpet, tables whose oil-spotted pink tablecloths are freshened up with white paper place mats between meals.
My friend and I took the inside seats, away from the carts, so our tablemates began advocating for us -- announcing the contents of the steamers, passing over plates, calling back the waiters if they skipped us.
None of us, it seemed, was thrilled with the selection. While we picked apart the overcooked shrimp and chive dumplings, they wrestled with the har gao, whose filling slipped its skin at first contact. We scraped off some of the undiluted oyster sauce on our Chinese broccoli while they muttered over the dark-crusted egg tarts. The same eight varieties of dim sum came around so many times that we
called over the waiter to see whether he could bring us anything else.
The quality remained consistent throughout the meal. Imperial Palace's stuffed eggplant with shrimp and the sesame balls were relatively solid, but the taro puffs exuded old oil and the spareribs with jalapenos could have used another 20 minutes of steaming. I was enjoying the Chaozhou dumplings -- pork, peanut, and dried shrimp -- until I bit into a small pebble and had to spend a few minutes checking all my fillings for damage.
Our advocates finally found something to praise: the cookies that one brought out of her purse. They weren't the only diners supplementing their meals. Two guys at the table next to us were hiding a bottle of Hennessy under the table, occasionally bringing it up to spike the contents of their teacups.
"Did you get enough to eat?" one of the women whispered to us as she got up to leave.
"Yes, but there wasn't a great selection, was there?" I answered.
"We usually go to New Asia," she said.
Imperial Palace: 818 Washington (at Waverly), 956-9888,