Can Royal China Be the Real Deal and Not Be in Chinatown?

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Is "authentic" Chinese cuisine within Dallas city limits a good thing? That was the question my friends and I were left with when we paid a post-Christmas lunch visit to Royal China last Sunday.

The immediate answer would be "yes, of course," right? Driving out to the suburbs for an Asian fix can be logistically difficult, sometimes, especially if friends and family might be coming from all parts of DFW. However, Royal China sits in the northeast corner shopping center of Preston and Royal, which isn't the cheapest neighborhood. Can Dallas-proper do "authentic" well and not cost a fortune?

Prices at Royal China are, on average, double what you would find in Richardson. There was a healthy-sized crowd of diners (most of whom seemed like regulars) enjoying their lunch on the afternoon of our visit. For those who are unfamiliar with Royal China - - one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in the city - - the menu ranges from typical Americanized Chinese dishes to more traditional cuisine. Royal China is well known for its Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings, and hand-pulled noodles. There is even an open kitchen view of cooks pulling long strands of dough and stuffing homemade dumpling skins. How unfortunate it was that on the afternoon we visited, it was mostly for show. While most of the other diners stuck to the more American-Chinese lunch menu of the beef and broccoli and orange chicken variety, our group was there for the sole purpose of indulging in the restaurant's hand-made specialties.

We started with what would turn out to be, by far, the best item of our entire meal - - the fried scallion pancake. Not overly greasy, perfectly golden and crusty on the outside, but still chewy on the inside, this is some of the best Cong You Bing I have ever had, anywhere. The ratio of crunchy to chewy is exact, and unlike some other places, the pancake is neither too thick nor too thin. As far as knockout perfection goes, that's the best Royal China got. Other dishes were good, but still were quite flawed.

Much is made about Royal China's Xiao Long Bao. First of all, it is really inspired that a restaurant in Dallas even makes these specialty soup dumplings, and Royal China makes them quite well.

Although the restaurant's soup dumplings are smaller than the traditional Xiao Long Bao, it didn't seem to bother me as much as I thought it would. The dumplings were cute and bite-sized, perfect for popping into the mouth. Normally, with the larger dumplings, one would have to catch the broth with a soupspoon. The bite-sized dumplings were a splendid treat because the soup would burst out of the skins while in the mouth and could be ingested concurrently with the rest of the dumpling. The problem, however, is for the price, there's not enough in each order. While there's nothing wrong with the smaller dumplings, there should have been a couple more in the steamer to offset the miniature size, especially at $8 per order.

Along with the soup dumplings, regular steamed dumplings also are offered fresh to order. The effort in preparing these dumplings should be applauded, but the final result leaves something to be desired. Royal China offers four different types of steamed dumplings, all with different fillings and different naturally-dyed skins. The skins, ranging from beet to spinach-flavored, are beautiful and perfectly thin. The fillings are quite lean and fresh tasting, albeit meagerly offered. Healthy dumplings seem to be the theme, as skins are made with whole-wheat flour, and there is also a gluten-free dumpling offered. In order to try all four of the fillings - - chicken, shrimp, pork, and vegetable - - we ordered the dumpling sampler. Because Royal China's dumplings are so lean and healthy, the steaming process resulted in dry, shriveled up dumplings. Great-tasting dumplings customarily possess a bit of fat in the filling to render a juicier bite. These dumplings would have fared better being boiled as opposed to being steamed.

On the subject of dumplings, it must be noted that there was hardly enough sauce offered for one person, let alone our party of three. The compartmental sauce dish holding the soy sauce, gingered vinegar, and chili paste was lovely, but its puny size is ridiculous for serious dumpling dining. It's a trendy looking, for sure, and it's in keeping with the restaurant's 2008 sleek remodel, but substance was missed in its sacrifice for style.

Dumplings were only the start to our meal, as we moved on to the restaurant's other specialty - - noodles. Royal China's handmade wheat noodles are wholesome, melt-in-your-mouth, very, very good. It's unfortunate that what the noodles are paired with isn't always of the same caliber. An order of traditional beef noodle soup left us perplexed. Although the slices of beef were tender, the broth was one-note, possessed nary a hint of Chinese spices, and was overwhelmingly salty. The restaurant's unique version of Za-jiang mien (a pork and fermented bean-sauce noodle) was much better than expected. Far from being traditional, Royal China's variation was wetter than a typical Chinese version. What could have been a very ordinary dish benefited from the homemade noodle and the addition of eggplant.

Other items of note are the Chrysanthemum tea and Pork Belly stuffed buns. The fancier sieve teapot did nothing to enhance what was a $7 pot of tea. This definitely was the rip-off of the day. The Chrysanthemum teas found in Chinatown contain actual flower petals floating throughout the pot and are much more aromatic than the anemic variety offered at Royal China. As for the Pork Belly buns, these mini-sandwiches have been really popular on the east coast for some years thanks to David Chang bringing them to the trendy forefront at his Momofuku restaurants. Having had the Momofuku ones while I was in New York, I have to say that the pork belly at Royal China is far superior.

What aren't better are the buns. These wheat flour buns should be fluffy, yet thick and not too airy. The buns at Royal China were humongous and overly porous, dwarfing the sublime piece of pork belly. Whereas the pork belly at Momofuku was all fat and no meat, Royal China's were nicely marbleized without being too greasy. The seasoning and sauces also were spot-on. The balance of sweet Hoisin and vinegary pickled vegetables provided a scrumptious bite. It was too bad the buns ruined the dish.

Choosing whether or not to dine at Royal China boils down to questions of convenience, healthy-eating, and dollar signs. The restaurant shouldn't (and couldn't) be a replacement for Chinatown, but it's an interesting try...as long as you can afford it.

Royal China 6025 Royal Lane #201 214-361-1771

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