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The usual suspects

Shrimp, rice dishes, soups are stars at Santung Palace II


It was one of those days. You have them, too, I'm sure. You know you are in the mood to eat out, but you don't have a strong feeling one way or the other when it comes to the cuisine. Perhaps, if you remain trapped in this undecided state, you end up going to whatever restaurant is closest to you. Or to the restaurant where someone else wants to go. Or you stay home, exasperated, not to mention hungry.

Not me. I jump in the car and start driving around. This method works for me because while there are plenty of times when I have a craving for a particular thing, the truth is that I can eat anything at any time. I prefer to think of this as a good quality in a food writer; I have found the most interesting places that way. And I have been discouraged, too. At the number of chain restaurants. At the number of places that have closed. At the bad food I end up eating because I had no specific destination in mind and I stopped at the last place I saw because I simply could not go another mile without eating something.It was thanks to such circumstances that I found myself at Santung Palace II on a windy, rainy day recently. (One thing about Chinese restaurants, they are virtually always open.)

The visual rule of thumb for whether an ethnic restaurant is authentic is to check out the clientele in the booths. Hmmm, the few people in Santung Palace II that day were Slavic. But then, the predominant cuisine in this part of Norcross is Mexican, not Chinese.

Still, there were encouraging signs. At least the staff was Chinese. And, thank-fully, the restaurant's interior isn't that same red and pink all over, with plastic seat covers. It is, instead, blue -- an interesting, deep, almost Prussian blue. From my perch in the non-smoking section, I could see the menu in Chinese characters on the walls of the smoking section across the room.

For all I know, there is a different or more extensive menu than the one handed to me; that often happens in ethnic restaurants. It wouldn't take much to make a more interesting menu than this one. It is small by Chinese restaurant standards, and certainly not daring. It pretty much rounds up all the usual suspects.

You are hereby advised to bypass anything fried or anything "sweet and sour," particularly the pork. Sweet and sour here is nothing more than that sticky, cloying, ridiculously red sauce with no nuance whatsoever. As to the fried part, think fast-food popcorn shrimp and you've got the idea.

The range of enjoyable dishes is narrow, but it does exist. Stick with shrimp (except the sweet and sour shrimp, of course), rice dishes and soups: sizzling rice, hot and sour, egg drop, wonton, san shan (crab and scallops in a richer chicken broth), chicken and chinese corn, war wonton (with chicken, pork and shrimp), and vegetable bean curd (basically water chestnuts and tofu).

Amazingly enough, the fried rice coming out of the kitchen is blissfully free of grease, and also of extraneous little vegetables. Even more amazing, given the modest prices, is that the shrimp don't have that distasteful iodine twang. They aren't overcooked, either.

It doesn't sound like much to say that the soups are good, unless you love soup as much as I do. For extremely modest amounts of money, you will get a bowl filled with something. Not just broth, but shrimp, mushrooms, egg or wonton -- and plenty of them.

Another interesting thing about Santung Palace II is that, while I was there, very few people came in. But a lot of take-out bags went out. The verdict of the regulars, then, appears to be that this is fast, cheap food and nothing more. The fact that none of the to-go orders included soup tells me that the recipients are less interested in what's good here, only in filling themselves up for the moment.

Santung Palace II, 3201 Tucker-Norcross Road, Norcross, 770-938-8422. Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, noon-3 p.m. Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 4-11 p.m. Inexpensive. Average price of dinner entree, $8. Credit cards. Dress: casual. Ambiance: typical of American Chinese restaurants except that the interior color scheme is blue, not the usual pink and red. No-smoking section. Wheelchair accessible.

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