Chef Lee’s Peking Palace

It was love at first sight: Rising like a mirage out of the suburban sprawl of Columbus’ Bradley Park Drive, Chef Lee’s Peking Palace II is a grand, old-school monument to Chinese food – and the American dream.

Lee’s is a massive outpost, a tile-roofed, Technicolor pagoda fully outfitted with gardens, carved dogs and dragons, tasseled lanterns – even a wooden bridge over a koi pond inside the restaurant. Joe Lee, a Taiwanese immigrant and third-generation restaurateur, built this palace in Columbus’ rapidly growing north side as an encore to his first, more modest but wildly popular restaurant on Buena Vista.

Lee piqued our interest with his ubiquitous ads – shown shaking hands with TV’s Martin Yan here, with a blurb touting a choice as a USA Today “Top 10” pick there. And once I learned that Lee’s featured my top three Chinese restaurant criteria (table service, umbrella drinks and handmade noodles), I had to go.

Ironically enough, the Chinese restaurant featuring table service only is commodity that is rapidly disappearing from larger towns such as Atlanta.

One by one, they’ve fallen to the convenience and thrift of buffets. That popular business model removes most of my favorite traits of good Chinese food: its dependence on fresh, made-to-order food, for one; friendly service, for another, often featuring such treats as tableside mu shu pancake wrapping; as well as the group dining experience helped along by another lost Chinese restaurant staple, the lazy susan in the center of the table.

Lee’s manages to balance popular demands with a focus on quality. Dropping in on a lunchtime Sunday, we were astounded at the long lines of well-dressed families waiting patiently for after-church tables. Spotting empty perches at the bar, we headed there and were quickly greeted and given menus and were sipping our cocktails within moments. (The mai tai is a little sweet, but it’s pretty – and did I mention it has an umbrella?)

After hearing so much about Lee’s food, I was a bit surprised to read the menu: fried rice, chow mein, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls – all fine, if mainstream, Americanized dishes. I saw nothing about the fabled handmade noodles and Korean dishes, and so asked our waiter, whose looks and wry humor reminded us of both Don Ho and John Belushi.

“Let me check,” he said, and on his return told us that the handmade noodles were available – he recommended them in a Korean seafood dish he called cham a bong – but it might take a moment or two while they were made fresh.

Perfect, we said, settling in with hot and sour soup, served in Chef Lee’s custom china. Soon, an enormous bowl arrived – with a smaller one for my friend to sample – of deliciously scented, slightly spicy broth with Chinese mushrooms, peppers, bamboo shoots, scallops, shrimp and a lovely coil of tender white noodles. Slurpily delicious. The lunchtime special of shredded pork with garlic sauce was similarly delectable, and with tea, rice, soup and egg roll, ridiculously inexpensive at roughly $6-$7 for each diner.

As we were eating, a man appeared behind the counter with the small white cap of a front-line cook. “How do you like it?” he asked. “It’s wonderful,” we assured him, and he nodded, smiling. It took me a few moments to realize this soft-spoken, humble cook was in fact the tall, handsome Chef Lee himself, born in Taiwan, but raised in Korea.

Chef Lee may have achieved the American dream, but he still understands the importance of making noodles by hand, and looking customers in the eye to gauge their approval.

Categories: Art of the Meal