I'm fairly new to Milwaukee and have been slowly checking out the Asian offerings, wary of any place mentioned in any of best-of nonsense in the Shepherd or the websites that poll readers. After some trustworthy friends recommended Rice Palace Asian Cuisine at 3730 W. National Ave., I ate there last night and I think it's better than any other Thai, Laotian, or Vietnamese joint in town that I've been to. It's certainly better than my runner-up in this category, Singha Thai, where many dishes (e.g., their signature Singha Beef) are served with sickly sweet sauces that call to mind coca-cola and Manischewitz wine.
Rice Palace is on a strip of National that has several Hmong restaurants and grocery stores, though they are identified as Laotian or Thai rather than as Hmong. Why this is I cannot say. Adjoining the restaurant is a bakery (more on that later). In the dining room, an enormous mural of a verdant Asian valley covers one wall, a mirror the other. They have some wacky colored lights in the ceiling, including a black light that they should sell to a gentleman's club. The service is attentive but in some ways quirky. I kept getting asked if I wanted more water. Dishes didn't arrive all at once. Rice appeared several minutes in advance of the rest of our food.
The menu offers "entrees" that come with salad or soup, which seems to discourage sharing and appetizer-ordering. (Didn't discourage us from the former, but did the latter.) The soup, egg drop, is not worth mentioning. Sorry for mentioning it. Next time I will decline the soup and try some aps.
The chow: One house specialty is roasted meats. We had a half roast chicken and a half roast duck. Both had very crispy skin and tender meat, and both were covered in the same dark, thickened, savory-spicy-sweet sauce. I highly recommend the duck, which is a nice portion for $11.95. I thought it was a whole duck at one point until I went to the bakery and saw how big their whole roast ducks are (you can buy one at the bakery). We also had a Gang Panang (red curry) with tofu and Curry Catfish, both full flavored and delicious. The Panang was ordered 3 out of 5 on the heat scale, and was hot but not blistering. The large menu includes some dishes designated Hmong (soups, meatballs) which we didn't try. It also has all the standard Thai items such as satay, pad Thai, tum yum, and curries.
Now the best part: the bakery sells custard buns, Hmong sausage, roast ducks, papaya salad, rice sweets, and sandwiches, including a barbeque pork sandwich for $1.99. I got talked into taking one home and just ate a few bites for breakfast. Now ordinarily I wouldn't buy a sandwich already wrapped in wax paper at 8:00 pm after dinner, but the proprietor was so nice and she talked me into it. Ok, I really wanted to eat it for breakfast. Anyway, this must be a serious contestant in my personal best cheap eats in Milwaukee contest. The pork is richly flavorful and smokey, the coleslaw gives it a nice crunch, and the large slices of fresh green chiles and several sprigs of cilantro make the whole thing pop.
The place was almost empty at prime time on a Friday night. This isn't good. Get thee to Rice Palace!
Next: Noodle House, down the street.