Dining Review – Empire Palace – Pittsburgh

When I was called to do this sampling and review of Empire Palace, what you might think of as a usual Chinese joint, I jumped at the opportunity. As a little girl, growing up with my brother and a single dad, we ordered takeout fairly often. Chinese food was a staple in our home.

We always ordered from the town’s token main street Chinese food place, which was aptly dubbed “The Great Wall.” I used to be annoyed at how the number of sweet and sour duck sauce packets was always insufficient in relation to the soy sauce and mustard packets that were generously tossed in the brown craft paper bags stapled shut with a menu or two attached.

I can still remember the typical order – pan fried dumplings, pork fried rice, chicken lo mein, sweet and sour chicken and General Tso’s chicken. I used to believe the latter were actual, real, authentic toes of a military officer. When I bit into a crunchy piece of chicken “toe” as a young girl, I literally thought it was a toe bone. I’ve gotten smarter since.
My expectations were shaped by my takeout experience during my childhood. Fried was a common denominator for our family’s Chinese food choices. And if you want that, you can have it at Empire Palace. But if you want fresh food, baked, steamed or raw, you can find that there as well.

What I realized while eating at Empire Palace was that Chinese food is not Chinese food anymore. I had to throw out my preconceived notions about this food, along with my lifelong mission to find eight-toed Chinese generals, and open my mind to the new Asian cuisine (what we at Nightwear like to call “Asian Fusion”). It’s not Chinese. It’s not Japanese. It’s not Thai. It’s all of it. It’s anything you want, the way you want it.
On the outside, cruising by T.G.I. Friday’s and its next door neighbor on McKnight Road, you might judge Empire Palace to be just another Chinese food buffet. And you wouldn’t be more wrong.
Once you walk through the doors at 5100 Corporate Drive, a welcoming, warm atmosphere greets you with an equally as pleasant host to seat you. If there’s a wait, no worries! A fully stocked bar with everything from a Cabernet to a Captain and Coke is available to keep you company. As a matter of fact, Empire Palace has a great happy hour complete with high definition flat screen televisions to watch your favorite sporting events.

The daily happy hour runs from 5 to 7pm with $1 off all draft beer, $2 off all glasses of wine and $5 martinis. On Friday and Saturday nights, they also have an evening happy hour from 9 to 11pm, plus every Thursday, 12 ounce Miller Lite drafts are just a buck. That’s ONE DOLLAR. Can’t beat that.

The décor is a neutral mix of modern design and traditional Asian styling, sure not to ruin your appetite. Booths and chairs alike were comfortable and cozy with plenty of room for any number of dining partners. What makes Empire Palace unique is the variety of offerings for any and every type of Asian cuisine enthusiast. We tried out a couple of dishes from their Dim Sum menu, which I would like to rename “Gimme Sum” after tasting these delectable bites. Dim Sum is traditional Asian tapas, which is prepared by a Hong Kong trained specialist. Just like their Latin counterparts, the Asian tapas are small plates meant to be shared.

I did not want to share. At all. The Sesame Seed Balls ($4) were the perfect blend of crunch and fluff, as the round mounds of rice flour were stuffed with a sweet lotus seed puree, rolled in sesame seeds and fried to a golden brown. The second Dim Sum dish was the Taro Dumplings ($5). I scarfed one of these bad boys down without knowing what was in it. And I’m glad I did because they were DELISH. I am not a fan of mushrooms, but these crispy mashed taro puffs stuffed with shiitake ‘shrooms and minced pork and shrimp were not what I expected. Another winner from the Dim Sum menu.
Of course, we had to test out how amazing their Amazing Chicken ($13 for the dinner entrée, $8 for the lunch special) was, and it lived up to its name with crispy white meat, perfectly sauced. As much as I love the fried staples from the traditional Chinese food menu, I couldn’t wait for the bevy of beautiful Maki Rolls about to come our way.

The colors on the plates were vibrant, living and fresh. The presentation was picture perfect. Both the Tiger Roll ($16) and the Pink Lady Roll ($14) were scrumptious, and if you are a sushi, sashimi or maki roll novice, these dishes need not intimidate you. The Pink Lady is Empire Palace’s best seller, with the shrimp tempura, salmon, avocado mix leaving no doubt as to why. The Tiger Roll is similarly yummy with crabstick, cucumber, shrimp, tuna and salmon tickling your taste buds.

I took a raw food rookie with me. He ate octopus. I ate octopus. It was delicio-pus. Opening your palate to new, somewhat exotic food choices can have you wondering, “What else am I missing?”

If you are not feeling adventurous and want your seafood cooked, they can hook you up nicely with a flower basket ($19) full of tasty lobster tail, jumbo shrimp, scallops all sautéed with vegetables in a special sauce. The dish is served in a basket made of crispy noodles which is just as tasty as its contents.

Fresh was the overall feeling, taste and smell of every dish. In addition to the traditional favorites, Dim Sum, sushi and seafood, other menu items include Lamb, which is the manager Kevin’s favorite dish, and many vegetarian and lighter options as well. Lunch specials run daily from 11am to 3pm so you can try out smaller portions of their entrees along with soup or an egg roll and rice.

My favorite fortune cookie fortune reads “The time’s always right to do what’s right.” Empire Palace does EVERYTHING right. It’s time to go there. Now!