A coworker of mine recently recommended I try Palace’s Pizza near Lake Phalen in St. Paul as a place that I’d probably really enjoy. While at first glance this nondescript location in a tired and outdated strip mall in East St. Paul seems no different than any other Minnesota pizza place, the subtitle of “Assorted Cuisine” under the restaurant’s name provides the tiniest glimpse into the treat Palace’s Pizza has in store for those who stumble upon it.
We arrived at about quarter to 12 on a Tuesday afternoon. The interior definitely looks like a takeout pizza shop. Aside from the tables there is a very long counter separating the prep area and kitchen with the rest of the space. There were two or three other tables occupied when we arrived and only one or two others throughout our entire 1+ hour meal. There is seating for quite a few people but from what the owner told us it can get very busy on evenings and weekends forcing people to do takeout. Aside from the spice tray, hoisin, and Sriracha on the table nothing seems amiss here.
Even with the subtle clues available to you, as soon as they deliver the menu to your table you are made fully aware that this is a pizza place only in name. Yes, there is pizza on the menu but their offerings are limited to a one page on the back of the menu. Pretty inexpensive pricing but certainly nothing special. However, the rest of the menu is an eclectic mix of Thai and other pan-Asian dishes such as lab and pho. My coworker recommended both the papaya salad and one of the various pho options but with a chalk sign on the counter proclaiming Palace’s Pizza as having “the best lab in the U.S.A.”
We placed orders for two different bowls of pho, an order of papaya salad (very spicy), and an order of beef lab (cooked medium and with medium spice) and sat there chatting while we waited. Soon after the orders were in our server came to the table with a plate of beautiful accoutrements for the pho which included piles of fresh Thai basil and fresh jalapeno slices on a bed of crunchy bean sprouts and a lime cut into wedges. Considering how little the two bowls of pho cost, this pile of add-ons would have probably pushed the totals over $20 for one bowl at any normal restaurant around town but here with regular sized bowls (8″) setting you back $7 or less, I mentioned to MSPD that I felt as if I was stealing this very fresh and wonderful food from them.
Eventually our orders were up. MSPD’s Regular Pho (pork and beef meatballs, fried pork, and thinly sliced beef for $6.00) came out in what we estimated to be an 8″ bowl and was full of fresh herbs, vegetables, a light broth, tons of noodles, tender beef slices cooked medium rare and a good bit of pork and meatballs to boot. While I’m certain MSPD will give his own in-depth review below, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the broth and the pho. However it was Palace’s beef lab that really seemed to blow MSPD’s mind.
Described on the menu as, “grounded (sic) beef tossed with oriental spices and herbs. (Let server know how you would like your lab cooked, med cooked, or raw. How spicy and bitter.)” this dish lived up to the chalkboard sign’s promise of greatness. At only $6.80, the large mound of meat which came out appeared to be well worth the price. While I’ve only had lab variations twice before and am certainly no expert, I was thoroughly impressed. With a steady stream of mint hitting your mouth on your first few bites, the spice and bitters don’t really come through until you’re about two mouthfuls in. By then a roaring inferno has built up and unleashed itself on your face and when you’re expecting “medium” and find yourself fighting a dragon, you have to be thankful for the glass of ice water in front of you which helps you to pretend you’re not fighting a losing battle. While MSPD’s was ordered medium, a later chat with the owner said that many really prefer to eat it raw and he suggested we do so on our next visit. I’m definitely in for that, anyone else?
I ordered an extra large bowl of Palace’s Special Pho (shrimp, fried pork, pork and beef meatballs, and thinly sliced beef). What came out was an estimated 12″ monster tub of soup so large that I had problems seeing it all at once without moving my head. Beef similarly tender to MSPD’s, this wasn’t the typical pho I find so many other places which comes out with dried out meats only edible because they’ve been soaking in a hot bath for 10 minutes before arriving at your table. After throwing in peppers, sprouts and some lime, I tore off some basil leaves and added them on top. Soon after a smile appeared on MSPD’s face and he commented that the fresh herbs really let off a great aroma which seemed to excite him even more for his own meal. The pho was excellent. Light broth which was like a blank canvas waiting to be drawn upon, this soup was absolutely amazing and allowed you to really taste all the individual flavors present as if they were compartmentalized in your mouth.
The papaya salad was also quite good. According to the menu it includes, “shredded papaya, tomato, lime, long beans, mango, ma kok, tamarind juice, fish sauce, crab sauce, and peanut,” for $5.00. Carrying lots of heat but retaining an excellent papaya flavor, Palace’s version included a lot of other ingredients I hadn’t seen before in other versions. With a nice crunch from the peanuts (which appeared roasted) and the ma kok (similar to a crab apple) this was definitely a hearty meal for only $5.00 and certainly a nice side to my pho. I particularly enjoyed the lack of a super strong fish sauce which may have simply been mitigated by the tamarind. While I could have tolerated a spicier dish, it sufficed but I’ll be sure to ask them to kick it up a couple of notches next time.
After our meal MSPD spent a lot of time asking about the food, our dishes, and the owners. We learned a lot about what to eat and how to eat it for our future visits and we left filled, extremely satisfied, and I certainly ended the food reviewing year on a much more positive note than I thought it would based on my experiences the day before.
Overall I highly recommend Palace’s Pizza in St. Paul for their pho, lab, and papaya salad. They have a wide variety of other Asian items on the menu which I can only assume are just as good and I cannot wait to go back and try some more. Thankfully with pizza on the menu, I can coerce The Wife into eating there while enjoying some of the best food I’ve had this year.
Have you ever eaten at Palace’s Pizza in St. Paul? If so what did you have and what did you think? Where is your favorite place to get pho or lab? Have you ever eaten lab raw and if so do you think it’s worthy of the hype? Would you ever be willing to eat it raw yourself? Whatever you have to say about this one go ahead and comment on as I’d love to hear your thoughts.
1373 Maryland Avenue East
St Paul, MN 55106
See all the pictures from Palace’s Pizza on Flickr here.