Half a century old, Ming's serves distinctive Chinese fare in grand fashion
With more than 200 dishes covering nearly every permutation of meat, seafood, vegetables, rice and noodles, Ming's aims to please even the finickiest of appetites. There are so many items to choose from that the menu can take longer to read than a chapter of "Ulysses."
The restaurant itself is large-scale, too; it seats 500 and is open 365 days a year, hosting special gourmet dinners, banquets and holiday extravaganzas.
Ming's opened in Palo Alto in 1956. Originally on El Camino Real across from Stanford University, it was a subsidiary of Johnny Kan's famed Chinatown eatery. Many of the original recipes, such as Ming's beef, Chinese chicken salad and Peking duck, survive to this day.
Since 1967, Ming's has been on Embarcadero Road just east of U.S. 101, where it commands a huge corner. Its contemporary building is divided into two opposing dining rooms along with several smaller rooms for more intimate gatherings. The linen-lined tables have ample space around them, nothing cramped; conversations can be conducted in normal tones.
Vicky Ching, who was a silent partner in the business, bought out her partners in 1991. "I had no restaurant experience when I bought them out. I had to get on a moving train," she said.
Now, she speaks with authority on the sociology of food and the evolution of Chinese food in Silicon Valley. "I have curious eyes and I learned," she said.
There are three chefs in the kitchen: a barbeque chef, a wok chef and a dim sum chef. The situation is reminiscent of old-fashioned trade guilds, according to Ching. Each chef has his own staff to manage. If one of the chefs leaves, he takes his staff with him. Happily, she said, turnover is rare.
Since there was so much to choose from, I stuck to basics and house specialties. All the food was served family-style, heaping portions meant for sharing. Many dishes are assembled tableside, which adds an air of festivity.
Ming's chicken salad ($8.55 half, $16.45 full) is shredded chicken rubbed with mustard, oil and salts and served on a bed of crispy lettuce. The flavorful and crunchy salad is actually "dry" — no additional dressing is used.
The steamed dim sum basket ($10.95) contained four wonderfully pliant steamed buns, each stuffed with slightly different ingredients. The dumplings were sticky-warm when they arrived and nearly melted on the tongue.
Dim sum is a Cantonese phrase that translates approximately to "heart's delight" and means small dishes, morsels, snacks or appetizers. Dim sum is said to have originated in tea houses along the Silk Road.
Five spice calamari ($8.60) was light and crisp. The term "five spice" appears often on Chinese menus. According to Kan's 1963 cookbook "Eight Immortal Flavors," the mélange is a cocoa-colored powder of Chinese star anise, cloves, fennel, anise pepper and cinnamon.
The pot stickers ($5.95) were fat and fresh-tasting. I chose pork, but they were also available with chicken or vegetables. The tempting spring rolls ($5.75) were crisp and hot out of the fryer. The spare ribs ($7.80) weren't as meaty as I had hoped but still tasty.
The Peking duck ($15.95 half, $29.95 full) was succulent and fork-tender, exposing rich, subtle flavors. The crackling skin had a golden brown patina surrounding the fleshy meat. The half order was plenty. The crispy fried chicken ($12 half, $22 whole) was not equal to the shimmering duck but was delicious in its own right.
Ming's beef ($11.95) features tender chunks of spice-rubbed meat. According to Ching, when the original Ming's opened, Americans wanted beef dishes that more resembled steak than the thinly sliced meat Chinese dishes called for. To accommodate, the chef started cutting the meat with broader strokes, the way it is still served.
Five spice chili crab ($24.75) was a detached but not cracked crustacean rubbed with mouthwatering spices then roasted. The combination of sweet, juicy crab and the five-spice medley was scrumptious. The dinner forks were unwieldy in coaxing the meat from the shell, though. Seafood forks would have made the dish more a pleasure and less a chore.
The sweet and tender walnut honey prawns ($15.35) were delightful. There were more wok-tossed prawns and walnuts that I thought possible for a single order, plenty to share with companions.
There are a dozen desserts. Nothing ignited much passion from my always too-full stomach. I tried the mango pudding ($4.50) one evening and wished I hadn't. The pudding was rubbery and floated in a teeth-chatteringly sweet strawberry puree.
Ming's has a full bar, a large assortment of beer and a small, but thoughtful, wine list with most wines available by the glass.
The Ming Dynasty lasted just short of 300 years. I don't know if Ming's restaurant can hold out that long, but the ingredients are there for long life: high-quality food, excellent service, lovely ambiance and dynamic leadership.
1700 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Sun. 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Take out: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent