Have you ever noticed that, no matter how small the North American town is that you’re passing through, no matter how far away it is from anything else even remotely Asian, there’s always a Chinese restaurant.

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With that in mind, Don Day wasn’t surprised when, on that very first visit to San Miguel de Allende, there was El Palacio Chino. The restaurant, located on the southwest corner of Mesones and Relox, wasn’t shy when it came to advertising. The line I remember was “The Best Chinese Food in Mexico”. Hmmmmm!

The first time Don Day went to El Palacio Chino (or China Palace) was the last time. You could either sit in a dark and dingy dining room or a bleak courtyard and neither area even measured up to the fluorescent-lit formica and plastic tablecloth decor I was used to in small town Canada. Boy, was that word palace a misnomer.

It wasn’t the last time Don Day ate El Palacio Chino‘s food, though. One Chinese meal a week had been on my must do schedule for most of my life and there was no way I was going to give that up. El Palacio offered a typical, something for everybody menu of Cantonese dishes with a few Szechuan and Hunan specialities thrown in to add a little spice. With some extra attention to narrowing the selection down (avoiding the beef is still a good idea) and by switching from eat-in to pickup or delivery, I was happy. Don Day didn’t have to put up with the dim decor and I continued to get my chopsticks on some of my favorite dishes. Though Don Day wasn’t about to shout out accolades, Don Day was much more sweet than sour on El Palacio Chino.

Over the years, there had been other San Miguel restaurants to offer Chinese food but Don Day can’t remember any having much of an impact. Then, about four years ago, a serious contender appeared to have arrived in town. Entering the scene was Dragon Chino. This new Chinese restaurant on Salida a Celaya was running 1/3 page ads in Atencion. People were talking about their food. People were saying that El Palacio Chino had a very serious challenger.

As a guy who spent most of his life in the ad biz, a restaurant’s advertising can have a huge impact on me. I thought Dragon Chino‘s newspaper ad was rather stupid. Most of it had a lot of Chinese characters that were meaningless to me; surely they weren’t attempting to directly target San Miguel’s huge Chinese population (around 14, I’m guessing, at last count). The newspaper ad actually worked in reverse for me; for the longest while I ignored the restaurant.

But curiosity got to me. And, one day, while walking over to El Maple bakery, Don Day took a look inside. The restaurant that I last remembered as an ornamental iron shop was certainly cozier than El Palacio Chino but that wasn’t saying much. I asked for the takeout/delivery menu and was told there wasn’t a printed copy but I’d find one on their website. Strange but OK, this is the electronic age; I could live with that. When I checked out the website. I was hooked. Up came a quote from a guy Don Day had jogged with a couple of times, saying, “Now I have no reason to go back to New York.” Those words were good enough for me. This was effective enough advertising; it was time to sample the Dragon.

I could have sampled in isolation. I could have sampled alone. But no. Why waste an opportunity for a dinner party. Don Day and Don Day’s Wife invited seven friends over and we placed an order at Dragon Chino. But to make it interesting, we ordered the identical dishes at El Palacio Chino. The results astounded Don Day.

Don Day knows this isn’t politically correct and I know I should try harder with my Spanish but I was relieved to find out that, at both restaurants, the person who answered spoke English. It’s hard enough to translate mu shu into English; I couldn’t imagine translating it into Spanish.

china palace opening bags

We chose five items (plus the obligatory steamed rice) that we thought would give us a good representative sample (note that since the tasting the prices have increased at both restaurants and some of the items are no longer available).

china palace serving

From El Palacio Chino, the dishes and prices:
Fried Steamed Dumplings $60
Moo Hsu Pork $95
Crispy Walnut Shrimp $145
Orange-flavored Chicken $115
Szechuan Beef $95

From Dragon Chino, we tried to order identical dishes:
Chinese Dumplings $52
Moo Shu Pork $80
Crispy Walnut Shrimp $113
Orange Flavor Chicken $98
Changsha Beef $75

china palace delivery

We telephoned El Palacio Chino first because it’s slightly further from the house, then immediately called Dragon Chino. They both took 37 minutes to arrive. So far it was a tie. With tip, El Palacio Chino came in at exactly 600 pesos while Dragon Chino was exactly 500. Advantage and a reasonably big one to Dragon Chino.

But you won’t believe what happened next. We tasted the food and one restaurant absolutely dominated the contest. Course by course, here’s how each person voted with one comment about each.”

Dumplings:
El Palacio: 9 Dragon Chino: 0
“Twice the size and twice as good.”

Moo Shu Pork
El Palacio: 6 Dragon Chino: 3
“The pancakes from the Palace are abysmal; you can’t even open them up. Thank goodness the filling makes up for it.”

Walnut Shrimp
El Palacio: 9 Dragon Chino: 0
“The breading’s too heavy; they’re too sweet; there’s too much vinegar.” (referring to the Dragon’s shrimp)

Schezuan/Changsha Beef
El Palacio: 6 Dragon Chino: 3
“It’s the pepper spicing that makes the difference.” (to the Palace’s beef)

Orange Chicken
El Palacio: 9 Dragon Chino: 0
“It’s so much better. The orange zest just jumps out at you.”

china palace the table after

Adding it up. China Palace absolutely slayed the Dragon, 5-0 in dishes and 39-6 in total score. It was really no contest. El Palacio Chino may not have “the best Chinese food in Mexico” like it still says on their menu but it definitely has the best Chinese food in San Miguel. Then again, on Dragon Chino‘s website it said it is “the only Chinese food restaurant in San Miguel de Allende with authentic Chinese cuisine”. If that’s true, give Don Day the inauthentic every time.

china palace fortune cookies

El Palacio Chino is located at Mesones 57 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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