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Pagoda Kitchen in Delray Beach offers pricey Chinese-American comfort food

Pagoda Kitchen in the Delray Marketplace.

This sprawling high-end dining spot in the Delray Marketplace in western Delray Beach is a gorgeous restaurant with a menu of serviceable cuisine. It’s more affordable at early bird dining hours. You can’t beat the hospitable staff, but for authentic Chinese food, this is not your destination.

By ALAN J. WAX

I’d been following the news about Pagoda Kitchen in the Delray Marketplace on Lyons Road and Atlantic Avenue from the time owner Burt Rapoport announced his plans for his high-end Chinese eatery almost a year ago, through its long-delayed opening, its eventual opening on Feb. 17 and the sudden exit of Bryan S. Emperor, its highly regarded executive chef just seven weeks later.

But something kept me from giving it a try. In a word: prices. Just about everything at Pagoda Kitchen is expensive.

Chinese restaurants in the U.S. are largely known as being affordable. To be sure, most Chinese eateries aren’t as fussy as Pagoda Kitchen. But when pricy Chinese food could be found, in restaurants few and far between, Pagoda Kitchen among them, it might be cast as a white-washed con. Still, the craftsmanship of Chinese cuisine, cultivated over hundreds of years, can be worthy of a range of prices.

Recently, Pagoda Kitchen became more affordable. Well, sort of. It began offering an early-bird special – at least for June – that included soup or salad, entrée and beverage for $18.99. This provided us with an excuse to give it a try. The catch: we had to be seated by 5 p.m. on a recent weekend evening, well before my traditional dinner hour. Not a huge problem.

What to expect at a Chinese eatery run by the company that also owns Deck 84 and Burt & Max’s in Delray Beach; Max’s Grill in Boca Raton and Prezzo in Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens? Read on.

Pagoda Kitchen’s bar area.

The sun was burning down on us as we arrived at Pagoda Kitchen – it’s in the former Apeiro space next to Burt & Max’s – and made our way into the eye-popping turquoise and red interior. The space is large with 5,600 square feet inside and 2,500 square feet on the patio. Thus, there’s plenty of seating both inside and out. We played Goldilocks in selecting a table: one in the screened-in outside front was too hot, another near the enormous well-stocked bar felt like a freezer. We settled on a spot near the rear. The staff was extraordinarily accommodating during this process. One note: the seats seem too low for the table height.

And at a time when many eateries have help-wanted signs in their windows, there were plenty of servers. Indeed, the service at Pagoda Kitchen is more polished than almost any other Chinese eatery in Broward or Palm Beach Counties.  And the attentive servers and managers are willing to accommodate finicky diners, my wife among them.

Peking duck, a house specialty, not surprisingly, was not among the early-bird offerings. On the menu, it’s $42.95 for a half bird, $78.95 for a whole. Much as we adore the dish, we passed.

Nonetheless, there were many offerings to choose from at the $18.99 tab with others at $24.95.  We figured our meals, if ordered during traditional dining hours, would have cost $35 a piece.

The menu offers plenty of fare that’s familiar to anyone who has ever dined in Chinese-American eateries anywhere in the area, or elsewhere: wonton soup, eggrolls, moo shoo, chicken and cashews, fried rice and lo mein, to name a few, The Rapoport Group calls it “traditional Chinese but for Americanized palates.”

How’s the food at Pagoda Kitchen?

One might expect some gustatory epiphanies given the prices, but for a Chinese-food snob who once dined regularly in New York’s Chinatowns (Manhattan, Flushing and Brooklyn) and craves authenticity, none ever arrives.

I started with hot and sour soup ($6.95 on the regular menu), one of my Chinese restaurant benchmarks.  The light broth had verve, surprisingly spicy with numerous flecks of hot Szechuan pepper visible in the broth that tingled my tongue. But except for a handful of dice-sized tofu cubes, a few shards of bamboo shoots and a sprinkling of chopped scallions and finely shredded pork, there was not much of anything to provide any texture to the soup.

Hot and sour soup.

Wok fried noodles with pork.

Chicken and brocolli.

 

Wonton soup ($7.95 on the regular menu) served sans greens at my wife’s request was unusual with its heavily ginger-seasoned broth and the use of ground chicken for the gingery dumpling stuffing and the shreds of chicken alongside them. Where’s the pork? Mitch, a manager who stopped by our table, explained that some of their customers won’t eat pork.

Eggrolls ($10 for two on the regular menu) are about an inch in diameter, have crispy thick skins and are filled with a gingery blend of chopped cabbage and yes, again, ground chicken instead of pork and shrimp. They’re served sliced on an angle with a gingery duck sauce.

Chicken and broccoli was General Tso’s styled bird with the greens. Requested not spicy by my wife, it arrived sans hot pepper, but it was nonetheless a bit too pungent for her palate from an abundance of slightly peppery ginger. Mitch, the manager, insisted on replacing it without the ginger. The new dish pleased my wife.

Wok fried noodles with pork ($18.95 on the regular menu), another benchmark that I use, was a bowl filled with crispy vermicelli, tons of scallions, a few bean sprouts and but a handful of tiny shards of roast pork. All I could taste, however, was soy sauce.

Dessert was not included in the early bird deal, but had we not been so full, we might have ordered some of the drool-inducing ice cream pies from Lily’s Handmade Ice Cream or a slice of the decadent cakes from the Two Fat Cookies bakery.

Yes, this all was a fantastic deal, pricewise. The service here is over the top, but the cuisine coming out of the kitchen, much of it reliant on ginger seasoning, doesn’t justify the prices on the regular menu and won’t ever suit an aficionado of authentic Chinese food. For me, it’s a once and done.

Pagoda Kitchen

14917 Lyons Rd, #100, Delray Beach FL 33445

561-229-1770

Pagodakitchen.com

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