If I had to choose one nation as my favorite food source, it would be China. Over the years and around the world, I've found a reliable indicator of great Chinese restaurants is the presence of fish tanks. Not the decorative kind but the sort in which sea creatures are kept alive and swimming until seconds before they're cooked.
Hence for a dozen years, as long as I've lived in Miami, I've been looking for a Chinese restaurant with a live tank. In the course of this search, I've questioned every other local food critic I know, and I did locate one place -- in Broward County. But in Miami-Dade? Nada.
Until last month. Thanks to shameless trolling in several recent reviews, in which I quizzed readers about several of Life's Eternal Mysteries (including mysteries such as: Where do clothes-eating washers/dryers hide missing odd socks?), I received an e-mail response from Siam River's sushi chef, Kevin Cory, a fresh-fish fanatic. Cory had no insights into the missing-socks mystery, but he had discovered a Chinese eatery with a live tank: King Palace.
330 NE 167th St, North Miami Beach
305-949-2339. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Which, according to my server during two recent visits, has been around for ten years. How did I miss it? Well, probably because King Palace's front window is adorned with this prominent notice of the place's specialty: "Chinese B-B-Q." Indeed, as one enters the restaurant, the usual graphically authentic protein products found in the best Chinatown rotisserie joints are on display behind glass, hot and glistening -- roast ducks complete with woeful hanging heads, bright red-dyed strips of pig, and more.
The barbecue is good too, except for some overly dry roast pork, tasting of little but sugary marinade. Additionally it would probably be best, should you be dining with your cardiologist, to avoid ordering the crispy pork. It's savory stuff, but mostly pure fat and crackling. Go instead for the burnished-brown, skin-on marinated chicken, moist but skillfully rendered of all subcutaneous fat. Whatever barbecue you order, be sure to include a vegetable, snow pea tips if available. If it's not pea season, the water spinach is terrific (more like bok choy than Popeye-like greens). So is the Chinese broccoli, similar to broccoli rabe but less bitter. Order it, as our server suggested, lightly sautéed with garlic rather than with the oyster sauce listed on the menu.
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Not surprisingly, though, the most spectacular offerings are seafood from the live tanks, typically two or three types of fish and a couple of crustaceans. Are you one of those who believe there's no better preparation of live Maine lobster than simply steamed with butter? You're not alone. But King's interpretations rival the classic: perfectly cooked, sweet, tender, shell-on chunks with either black-bean sauce, ginger, or green onion; a combo of the latter two is recommended. A whole fish from the tank, prepared the same way, heaped with crunchy scallion slivers, is also a best bet, though fans of spicy Szechuan-style dishes should opt for the same fresh fish with hot bean sauce.
Another hit for heat lovers: the salty-peppery preparations. If you're in a bar-snack mood, try salt-and-pepper silver fish, tiny boned and battered whole fish. Our jovial server's description of the good, though quite greasy, morsels as "Chinese French fries" was accurate only visually; the crunchy shoestring fish sticks, unlike potatoes, were spicy enough to set one's hair aflame.
Specific seafood choices vary daily, but you're in luck if softshell crab is listed on the blackboard. A dining companion from the Pacific Northwest declared our salt-and-pepper crab -- lightly breaded, fried, and heaped with diced sautéed green and red chilies -- the equal of any she'd had in the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver. A dining room packed almost exclusively with Asians seemed to agree.