The shiny golden utensils at each table setting should be a clue: Little Palace, open since January, serves American Chinese in a celebratory setting you may not be used to. Like the old habit of dressing up to fly, the idea of American Chinese in an elegant dine-in atmosphere feels rare these days — rarer, certainly, than grabbing General Tso’s chicken out of a white takeout box.
This is not to say that when you leave this charming new restaurant, you won’t have leftovers packed tidily in those customary white oyster pails. You will, and not just because portions are generous (though they are), but also because Little Palace has a firm embrace around the traditions of American Chinese food.
Those traditions date back to the late 1950s, which saw the appearance of trailblazing American Chinese restaurants from Joyce Chen in Boston, and later Leeann Chin in Minnesota, among others, concurrently with the heavily be-kitsched Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber watering holes — interpretive mash-ups of Polynesian and pan-Asian influences.
I’m not old enough to have been drinking a piña colada in the heyday of Trader Vic’s, and I wasn’t really eating much Chinese food until young-adulthood. (My childhood house was, if anything, influenced most by the sambal oelek, krupuk udang, and peanut-sauced satay of Indonesia, my father’s birthplace.) As a history guy and a food guy, though, I’ll always be fascinated by the American marriage of Chinese food and Polynesian-ish tiki drinks.
I also really like crab rangoon. We ordered them during every Little Palace visit. Familiar, sweet/savory and crunchy, but also a moment for personal discovery. Little Palace will dose your sweet and sour sauce with a dollop of hot mustard — a sinus-flagellating delight I can’t believe I’d never tried until now. These join Lao Laan-Xang’s as my favorite rangoon in Madison.
If you can’t find a favorite on the Little Palace menu, you’re probably not trying. Kung pao chicken delivers a pleasant punch of spice with its peanutty richness. Little Palace’s fry game is strong, crisply coating the General Tso’s without rendering the interior tough or dry. In keeping with the tiki vibes, the General Tso’s also includes pineapple chunks, a fun elaboration beyond the usual broccoli.
Smaller dishes help fill the table to its edges, like crunchy pork spring rolls or a refreshing and optionally spicy cucumber salad. A plate of blistered green beans glistens alluringly, the charred exteriors pleasantly smoky. (Pro tip: save the liquid from your cucumber salad to drizzle over the beans.) Egg drop soup is slightly more complicated than it often is in its takeout iterations, with veggies and fried wonton strips for textural contrast.
Moo shu pork pairs thin and springy pancakes with sweet hoisin sauce and that lovely red-ringed sliced pork, though as with most main dishes, proteins can often be swapped for vegetables, tofu, or for other meats. Tender Mongolian beef is presented with minimal accompaniment atop a tangle of fried rice noodles. If it was a little awkward to eat tidily, it was at least fun to look at.
Fried rice is an optional upgrade for white rice, and it’s fine if a little boring. The fried rice that can be ordered as an entree, however, is a stunner. Dark with soy sauce and a breath-of-the-wok depth, it’s a no-brainer paired with the aforementioned barbecue pork.
There’s a subtle curry note to the Singapore noodles (a natural pairing with tenderly cooked shrimp). Cashew chicken, a rare miss, lacked a defining flavor; a little more salt or garlic would have done the trick.
Small disappointments fade quickly with so much to be happy about. There’s the absurd delight of shareable and optionally aflame tiki cocktails (though the non-alcoholic drink menu is punchy and fun, too), the drink special served in a little ceramic panda, and an ice cream sandwich that brilliantly marries Little Palace’s cultural identities with a scoop of blue moon ice cream smooshed between crisp almond cookies.
Service was welcoming across all my visits, from host to server to bartender. The date night vibe that has persisted here at 225 King St. since it launched as Cocoliquot is alive and well under Little Palace’s love-red paper lanterns.
If you’re among the crowds that have been filling its seats, you know what’s up. You can still have your fried rice boxed for takeout, but there’s a real joy in getting a table, sipping something tropical, and enjoying American Chinese classics for the hundredth time — or the first — fresh out of the kitchen.
225 King St.
4-9 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 4-9 p.m. Sun.