All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
There’s so much to take in at the dumpling bar at Royal China.
Dough, dusty with flour, peels off into even nodes, one at a time. Those inch-wide balls roll out into small circles with a smooth, thin wooden rolling pin. After adding a scoop of pork mixture, dumpling chef Hwa-Juan Shen, who hails from the Shanghai suburb of Wuxi, places her thumb in the center of the dough circle, swirls it around with her fingers, pinching and folding it into a neat little purse and then drops it into a bamboo steamer. There’s the shush of steaming water, the crackling of fresh noodles. On a busy day or a holiday the “dumpling ladies” might make up to 1,000 dumplings.
Which is why it’s easy to say that Royal China’s dumpling bar is one of the best seats in Dallas. It’s a magic place where xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and jiazoi (crescent-shaped dumplings) are front and center.
On a recent visit, I order a scallion pancake, the dumpling sampler (with pork, chicken, shrimp and vegetable), and I’m crunching on fried wontons. My guilty pleasure is to dab hot mustard on the wonton, which, if you use too much, will clear your head like an F5 tornado.
My dumplings are, as always, stupendous, eased by warming ginger with the crunch of Napa cabbage. This is how joy goes at Royal China.
“We’re officially more Texas than Taiwan now,” says George Kao, who runs Royal China. He’s downing coffee and speaking in fast, exuberant sentences. Kao was born in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and he moved to America in 1977. Royal China had already been open — since 1974, to be exact. His father, Buck, (“Like Buck Rogers,” George says), moved the whole family to Dallas in the '70s.
“He loved the Cowboys,” George says. “He became a Cowboy fan. That’s a story for later.”
I’ve been eating at Royal China for years, but never truly realized how comforting and home-like it was, and is, to the Kaos and to Dallas.
Calum McArthur, a local, walks in with purpose and sits next to me at the bar. George prompts him, “Soup?” He accepts, and a minute or two later he’s dropping crunchy things into a piping-hot bowl of wonton soup.
“Is this a regular for you?” I ask McArthur.
“Once a week,” he says. “Man, I think they’ve got the best wonton soup in the city.”
George Kao grew up at Royal China. Back then, the restaurant’s focus was on the dinosaur classics. Stir-fries. Sweet and sour pork. Lo mein and chop suey.
“After a few years, we brought in different dishes from different regions because the customers got more sophisticated taste. We brought more authentic stuff to the restaurant,” Kao says. “Probably before 1980, most Americans didn’t eat Cantonese. Cantonese brought the first Chinese food to the United States. Then gradually, Sichuan, Hunan, the spicy food came in. Then Beijing-style and Mandarin food came in. Nowadays, even in Dallas, every region in China ... they all have restaurants.”
The classics are solid at Royal China. Egg rolls are huge and loaded with cabbage, not those thin, rusty-orange cigars that most joints have. It's not perfect, but it's comforting. The salt and pepper chicken, egg drop soup and moo shu pork were bland on a recent visit.
But the hand-pulled noodles and dumplings are transporting. On another trip, a bowl of cold, Lanzhou Dan-Dan Laiman, beautifully springy and tender noodles cut by a razor-sharp peppercorn sauce and pulverized peanuts, are the comestible equivalent of a crackling fire and warm socks.
The dumplings, both soup and traditional crescent shape, are on a whole other plane of joyous eating. I prod George for Royal China’s methods.
“It is very, very simple. Basically, it’s a little bit of ginger,” George says, referring to the pork mix. Pork and cabbage, tightly encased in their hand-rolled and pulled wheat dough.
“It’s basically just water and flour," he says of the dough. "The rest is just experience.” The feeling has to be right, in other words.
“We have the best chefs," he says. "It’s more like home-cooking. Every mom has their own special recipe."
Therein lies the essence of Royal China: food, and an experience, that feels like you grew up with it — even if you didn't.
Royal China, 6025 Royal Lane