Preston Road North is the unlikeliest new dining strip. It's totally not fashionable, totally not a place to hang out, but evidently the neighborhood is totally filled with hungry diners. Have they just been discovered or was everyone between LBJ and Oak Lawn on a diet until recently?
Lately I decided to investigate some of the pioneer restaurants in this area, places that suspected even suburbanites like to eat out. "Bucky" Kao's Royal China, for instance, in Preston Royal Shopping Center, has been feeding the unbeautiful people since I was a kid, before Popolo's, Mi Cocina, and Zuzu's "discovered" them.
On a recent Sunday night Mr. Kao was working the door and the room, offering everyone the same warm welcome whether they were first-timers, as we were, or old-timers, which most of them were--and I mean blue-hairs. The staff seem to take their cue from Kao; our servers were unfailingly unflappable and friendly. Our placemats told us that according to Chinese astrology I'm impatient and ostentatious--a bad combination for a reviewer--but our waiter gave me no opportunity (for impatience, anyway).
Royal China is personal in a way restaurants seldom are anymore, run according to high standards with a kind of idiosyncratic professionalism. The rooms are decorated with fantastic dry arrangements created by Kao's daughter-in-law--a work-in-progress stood on an empty table. And in the private dining room, since we asked, we saw her odd and beautifully thought-provoking sculpture made of dried fish, along with an exhibit of photographs and an old enlarger.
We ordered appetizers with our Japanese beer--perversely, I first asked for a daiquiri and was told the bar was "out." The potstickers were fine, but the accompanying clear vinegary ginger sauce was a little startling. "Paper-wrapped chicken" seemed to be chopped chicken pieces seasoned with ginger and scallion, then wrapped in aluminum--not paper--and steamed. They looked like something the astronauts might have to eat in flight and when you opened the tightly folded little packets you singed your fingers. The meat turned rubbery when exposed to air--I didn't know if this was one of those Chinese textural mysteries that are so untranslatable or an unfortunate side effect, but if you don't like it, you better eat fast. The terrifically light and crisp-skinned eggrolls, filled with meat and shredded cabbage, fell into none of the eggroll pitfalls: tough wrapper, stringy cabbage, bland blend. They were extremely tender, crisp and good.
Entrees were all wonderful. Dry stir beef, one of the more unusual dishes, was crisp, square slices of beef, twice-cooked and just coated with a sticky sweet-hot brown sauce. Chicken in orange peel had a similar texture, the little gold nuggets glazed and spicy-sweet. Chicken and shrimp was a winner combination of white meat and shellfish with crisp vegetables.
Our water glasses were filled without asking as often as I needed it, which isn't the only mark of good service, but was utterly necessary in this particular July with these particular dishes which were all hot. (Our fortune cookies advised us both to be patient and that we would soon be entering a land of sunshine--which appeared to be just outside the door.)
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And Colonel Kao saw us out, as a good host should, asking us back and first giving us a guided tour of the celebrity gallery, which shows he was invited to the White House by Eisenhower. The walls of the entry are covered with autographed photos of the pretty, rich and famous. So Royal China may not have been on the beaten track all these years, but it has certainly had a path beaten to its door. And it's easy to see why.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Royal China, 201 Preston Road Village at Royal Lane, 361-1771. Open for lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. For dinner daily 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
Dry Stir beef $9.95
Chicken with orange peel $8.95
Chicken and shrimp combination $8.95
Eggrolls (2) $1.95