On Sunday mornings and afternoons, a line snakes out the door at Kirin Court, Richardson’s beloved dim sum institution. On weeknights, the strip mall’s parking lot keeps jam-packed with dinner crowds. Kirin Court may have tradition, an elegant atmosphere and pretty good food, but its dim sum isn’t always worth a long wait.
Just across the street, a much smaller, quieter restaurant is serving up excellent food of its own. First Emperor Chinese Restaurant has been around for years, owned by a Taiwanese family, but it doesn’t have the handsome interior of its neighbor. First Emperor’s tiny dining room is presided over by old wallpaper and the foyer’s leafy, enormous plastic trees. The menu isn’t especially focused; there are Szechuan favorites like ma po tofu and tea-smoked duck, Taiwanese home-cooking dishes and Americanized foods like General Tso’s chicken. The quality, though, is pretty consistent. First Emperor is too good to be the second-best restaurant on its own block.
Start by ordering the restaurant’s specialty, the sesame cake ($7.95), a massive loaf of spongy, flavorful white bread pockmarked with green onion and covered in sesame seeds. The sesame cake takes a while to make, and alongside a few more dishes it’s enough to feed a table of six. A loaf to go would be perfect for hosting a dinner party or loading some major carbohydrates. The scallion pancakes ($2.95) are more modestly sized, thin and golden-crispy, some of them also dusted with sesame seeds.
Then it’s time for mains like the sizzling steak, served fajita-style on a hot skillet with onions and other veggies ($10.95). Unlike many a subpar fajita, this beef remains ultra-tender and succulent, doused in pepper and other spices, though it would still be enjoyable with even more pepper. Lamb is served with scallions or leeks ($9.95); the scallion stir fry is well-sliced, very slightly sweet but enormously flavorful, with a generous allotment of green onions.
Steamed pork with vegetables is an unappetizing name, and it’s an unappetizing plate, too: a big pile of brown meat slabs in an even more brown broth, nary a vegetable in sight ($9.95). But, as with First Emperor itself, appearances are deceiving. This is moist pork belly, with ribbons of fat, and the vegetables have been blended into the sauce. Ladle the combination over rice and, despite the color, the result is a surprisingly tasty plate.
But the star of the show is tea-smoked duck ($13.95). Taking extra time to cook, it tends to arrive, as the best things always do, last. This is a generous portion of duck — a half bird, in fact — served with steamed buns, duck sauce and cilantro for you to build your own sandwich. But, as fun as it is to assemble a balanced bite, the duck meat is the star.
For one thing, that smoke flavor is intense and exciting. Imagine a barbecue joint getting its hands on duck and you’ll have a general idea. But then, on top of that, First Emperor gives its bird an ultra-crispy exterior, the skin crunchy. It’s a culinary miracle, achieved by raising the heat dramatically in the final minutes of roasting, or perhaps even a quick flash-fry. The crunch, the smoke, the marinade, the tender duck: this is one of the most surprising bites in Dallas.
There are good sides, too. Taiwanese-style eggplant ($8.95) is made right, in a savory stir fry sauce and boasting practically half a tree of basil leaves. Seasonal vegetables (or, the menu says, “begetable”) are available in stir fries as well; in October the feature was good water spinach with toasted garlic ($8.95). String beans are always on the menu, cooked perfectly and served in classical Chinese style, with a garnish of ground pork ($8.95). There’s no reason to complain about the hot tea, or the rice served with each meal.
Not all the dishes at First Emperor measure up. A plate of pork fried rice ($6.95) was relatively ordinary, and not generously apportioned with pork or the requested egg. Ma po tofu is flavorful and generously portioned ($8.95), the tofu cooked right, but spice-heads will be disappointed in the moderate heat. It’s worth remembering that the ownership here is Taiwanese, so their Szechuan dishes won’t be cooked in the mouth-numbingly hot style that’s become popular here. On the other hand, relative wimps like this author will be satisfied by that willingness to hold back.
And there’s plenty of flavorful food to order here — the lamb, spare ribs, seafood, veggies and especially duck — without trying to find a hot chili bomb. First Emperor Chinese Restaurant is, despite its longevity and staying power, a sort of eternal underdog. Its modest dining room, with a maximum occupancy sign stuck into the wall by thumbtack, pales in comparison to the opulence across the street at Kirin Court. The crowd here is smaller, too, although savvy BYOB enthusiasts know that this is a great place to bring wine.
But sometimes underdogs are pretty good, too. First Emperor’s humble exterior has probably prevented it from attracting the crowds that its best dishes deserve. And the giant plants, syrupy piano music and dark back corner may scare some diners off. But for others — for those who know that terrific food can come from anywhere — the calm is part of the attraction. And if avoiding the lines isn’t a good incentive to try this little family-run spot, maybe crispy smoked duck in a steamed bun will be.
First Emperor Chinese Restaurant, 200 W. Polk St., Richardson, 972-680-9077, open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday through Sunday.