Shortly after it opened in Richardson in August, Imperial Noodle changed its name to Imperial Cuisine. Maybe it should consider changing the name back.
The specialty here is extraordinary noodles, handmade to order by chef Charlie Zhang. Zhang is a 30-year noodle veteran, most recently employed at Dallas institution Royal China. This new suburban restaurant is, in a way, his version of leaving the band to go solo. He is, after all, a great chef and a great showman too.
Place an order for beef noodle soup or minced pork noodles and Zhang appears at a long, prominently placed counter, forming dough and flamboyantly teasing it out to great length. He slams the dough against the counter, spins it out mid-air and tugs it all apart with the obvious joy of a performer playing to a captive audience. (He seems to take special pleasure when children line up at the counter to watch the show.) The mirrors lining Imperial Cuisine’s walls almost always display Zhang grinning ear-to-ear, making fresh noodles for some lucky, hungry customer.
Maybe he’s preparing the imperial cold noodles ($12.95), which come with a nominal topping of carrots and bean sprouts in a light sweet-and-sour broth that leans a little toward sweet. The noodles are ultra-thin (compare them to angel hair pasta) and the dish feels feather-light. It tastes plenty good now, but come summer, the cold noodles will be divine.
Or maybe Zhang is making an order of the thicker, slurpier noodles for beef soup, which he serves in two varieties (both $12.95): Imperial, with a brown broth, ultra-tender meat and an awful lot of cilantro, or Lanzhou, with a clear broth, thinner beef slices and the occasional white radish. Both soups are excellent, and if the Lanzhou broth has a more complex flavor, it’s also noticeably saltier. A seat at the noodle bar affords a view of staff microwaving the soups’ meats, but that shortcut isn’t noticeable in the final product. Anyway, the noodles are the compulsive, delicious stars.
Pork dumplings ($7.95) are pretty big and generously filled, as are the “Peking pies” ($7.95), which are awfully similar to pork dumplings, but in large round shapes and fried. The steamed dumplings are probably a better pick than the fried, but all are good, beef especially. The highlight, of course, is xiao long bao, or soup dumplings ($7.95), the famous bit of culinary magic in which each dumpling contains both meat and piping hot broth. At Imperial Cuisine, there isn’t too much broth in the soup dumplings, but the wrappings stay paper-thin without breaking, and the flavor is pure comfort-food heartiness.
The other foods at Imperial Cuisine aren’t always as stellar. Crisp quick-fried green onion pancakes ($4.95) can be great or disappointing; on one visit, they were thick and chewy in the center. Stir-fried bok choy is a great vegetable side for the table to share ($8.95), the bok choy cooked to perfection, still blessed with a bit of crunch. Watch out for big slices of fresh ginger, though.
A dish called “Assorted Vegetable” ($8.95) arrived with broccoli, mushrooms, water chestnuts, cucumber and wide, thin slices of carrots, but it was completely forgettable — an excuse to call dinner healthy.
There are non-noodle specialties like an imperial pork belly ($16.95), a modern spin on traditional dongpo pork from Hangzhou. Amusingly served in a gigantic ladle, it couldn’t be much simpler: enormous cubes of meat seared and slow-cooked until tender in a deep red-brown sauce, served with a handful of scallions on top of some bok choy. But, though the belly is plenty tender, Imperial Cuisine’s is just not the most flavorful or compelling take on this classic dish.
One element of Imperial Cuisine makes for a real, and perplexing, surprise. The Chinese menu is augmented by a full sushi bar, with a whole page of specialty sushi rolls. In an interview with CultureMap, a restaurant manager said that the idea is “Asian fusion,” but when Charlie Zhang is in the house making noodles, isn’t a sushi bar always going to be a lower priority?
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As it turns out, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, the sushi list is limited, and it mostly sticks to familiar Americanized standbys like spicy tuna and California rolls. Yes, fully half of even the specialty sushi rolls feature cream cheese. But read the list carefully to avoid cream cheese items and, against the odds, a few winners appear. The Yummy Roll ($11.95), with shrimp tempura and a topping of eel, turns out to be fresh, flavorful, well-constructed and generously sized. It exceeds our admittedly low expectations.
For the diner unadventurous enough to reject both sushi and noodle bowls, Imperial Cuisine will make items like General Tso’s chicken and Mongolian beef. Indeed, that section of the menu has expanded since the restaurant’s opening. But what’s the point? Noodle soups and dumplings are the stars here, and, from his center stage position, Zhang delivers a starring performance.
Imperial Cuisine’s name change indicates a desire to branch out and serve a big range of Asian foods. But, though the sushi is surprisingly enjoyable and well made, the reason to come here is for good steamed dumplings and generous bowls of fresh noodles and noodle soups. Grab a seat at Charlie Zhang’s bar, order some items that require his handiwork and sit back to enjoy dinner and a show.
Imperial Cuisine, 101 Coit Road #84, Richardson. imperialnoodle.com, 972-479-9535. Open daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m.