At the ripe old age of 41, Royal China is one of Dallas’ longest-running restaurants; in fact, the Kao family has operated it continuously since Shu-Chang “Buck” Kao, a native of Hunan, opened it in 1974. Buck died in 2001. Today Buck's son and daughter in-law, Kai-Chi “George” and his wife B-Lan “April” Kao, own and run Royal China; they brought in a new chef, Wei-Gou Cai -- a native of Wuxi, China, in September. In a recent phone interview, April filled me in on the restaurant’s history and her goals for it going forward.
LB: How long have you and your husband, Kai-Chi “George” Kao, owned Royal China?
BAK: Starting in 1995, since my father-in-law had a stroke. We’ve been working at the restaurant like forever. At the end of 1977 I came. George came four months before that.
LB: Where did you come from?
BAK: I met George in Taiwan. He had just come out of military service, and was waiting to come home [to Dallas] because he already had the paperwork and immigration arranged, but he didn’t want to because Taiwan is so much fun. I was a deejay in a restaurant, playing rock ‘n’ roll music, and someone told him, “We should go to this restaurant; they have rock ‘n’ roll.” He came to the restaurant expecting to find a guy, but he found me. It was 1976. But his mom said, “If you don’t come, your immigration status is going to be void.” Four or five months later, we got married and we came.
LB: So you went to work at Royal China, for your father-in-law. Tell me what the place was like when he opened it. What was the space before that?
BAK: It was an Indian-style steakhouse, Safari. The old-timers still remember it -- it was a pretty fancy steakhouse.
LB: You mean some of those people are still your customers?
BAK: Yes, the older generation -- those in their fifties and on. They all remember coming to the restaurant as kids -- the older ones say “I had my first steak there.” It had an open fire pit -- I heard; I never saw it. It had animal heads hanging on the wall, and a very tall Indian guy dressed in an Indian outfit with a turban. People are still sending me pictures of it.
LB: And your father in-law kept some of the decor from Safari?
BAK: The chairs and the tables are from that restaurant. We recovered, refinished and tried to keep them good as they are. We kept the interior pretty much the way it ws. The wood panels, and there was a Taj Mahal painting. And we had a wall carpet -- it was beautiful, but it got stolen when we did the renovation in 1993. The Taj Mahal painting was stolen, and the wall carpet was stolen.
LB: Was that the first major renovation you did, in 1993?
BAK: Yes. We opened up the whole restaurant, all the way to the end, we added some colors, we modernized a little. The dumpling bar was an open-fire grill. In 1993 I wanted to do a dumpling bar there, and we were like halfway through the construction, and I got voted out by my mother in-law. Whatever she said counted. Since the 1993 renovation, the business started to pick up. We grew every year until actually it was doing very well in 2000. And then when SARS hit, all the Chinese restaurants kind of went down. [The outbreak of severe respiratory syndrome, or SARS, began in China in 2002; by 2003 it had spread to 37 countries.] It really hit us after SARS, and it kind of lay flat. And then in 2006, the lease was up, and the landlord -- Jackie Miller -- wanted to change the whole shopping center and didn’t want to renew our lease. George and I were running the restaurant and we were kind of tired, and we were thinking maybe we’ll do something else, since the landlord is not going to renew our lease. He said, “I can do photography, and if you want, we can do it together. Or landscaping.” And then he said, “The restaurant is all my life. All I’ve done is restaurants.” And I said, “OK, if we do the restaurant, we have to do major changes." We had a customer who was an architect, and I had said, "If I ever renovate, I will hire you." It turned out he was really good, really creative. We worked together to get the landord’s attention -- so she changed her mind. We presented Jackie our plan, or menus, everything. So we signed a 10-year lease in 2008.
LB: What was your plan?
BAK: When she had decided not to renew the lease, she said thought Chinese was getting boring; she wanted a fusion restaurant. So she asked me, “What are you going to do differently?” and I told her I wanted to do dumplings and hand-pulled noodles. So I went to China for a month photographing with my friend, and at the same time looking for someone to do noodles and dumplings. Zhang Xue Liang was a private chef for my friend’s mom -- she was a general at the time, and he was a private chef for her. She didn’t know anyone else who could do hand-pulled noodles. And she said, "OK, why don’t you try him?" He didn’t know how to do the thin noodles, but since he had to wait three to four years to come [for immigration reasons], I’d call him and say, "Why don’t you try this, and try the hand-pulled thin noodles," so he learned.
LB: When did you start doing photography?
BAK: In 1989. It was a very serious hobby. In 1993, when we did the renovation, I used the small room as a gallery, where I showed my friends’ work. I showed their work until I got to busy to change it. Since I had so many friends’ pictures, that was the cheapest way to decorate.
LB: Why did Zhang Xue Liang leave Royal China?
BAK: Some people from China came as customers, and they want to open a restaurant together, so good luck to them. I am OK with it. I didn’t sign a contract with him, so I knew this would happen.
LB: Has it been hard finding someone to replace him?
BAK: It’s not easy in Dallas. In New York, I had contact with some people, but I couldn’t find a suitable one. People in New York don’t have cars, and I have to provide them a place to live. But a car is an issue -- I don’t think I could go pick someone up and bring them to work every day.
LB: Would it be easier to find someone in L.A., where people drive more than they do in New York?
BAK: Yes, I need to put an ad in the paper. But to tell you the truth, I wanted to make sure everything’s up to par first, because I’ve been so busy. Chinese cooking got a really bad name because of all the buffets and all these cheap restaurants, so my idea was if I’m going to stay in this business, I wanted to bring more authentic cooking, but with a western twist to it -- so Chinese people can eat it, and American people can eat it, too. I want to continue to bring Chinese cooking up -- instead of when people think of Chinese cooking, they think of a cheap, around-the-corner take-out place. Mr. Cai has 40-some years of experience. He worked in a big restaurant in China, and he had his own restaurant. Then he went to Australia, and then he came here. He is a cooking visionary. He says, OK, these people want beef, chicken, shrimp, and he’ll make them something special with the ingredients we have. He actually thought in this area, he could do fancy banquets and all that. But we didn’t advertise that.
LB: So you do banquets?
BAK: Sometimes. He did a banquet for a baby, a two-month-old baby celebration, and he carved these animals from turnips and carrots. It was so funny and so cute. He carved a porcupine. I couldn’t stop laughing!
LB: What are your favorite of his dishes?
BAK: He made every one of them first for me to try, and I like them all. I love the one marinated in rice wine lees, the Shanghai-style xiang zhao pork belly. That has a very unique flavor. His wife is one of the dumpling ladies. He made that dish for me and my husband one night, and we didn’t finish it, so we could keep having it. It was so good, we would just eat one piece at a time. So I said maybe I should think about hiring him when the other chef retired.
LB: Which one is he married to?
BAK: Hwa-Juan Shen. They’re from the same town. She and her husband had a restaurant there, in Wuxi. I also love the wheat gluten dish -- Shanghai kao-fu. We grew up eating kao-fu, but people are scared of gluten; everyone wants gluten-free. I think his kao-fu is very delicate; it has a little sweetness, but it’s not too sweet. Some of the Indians are vegetarians, and they are beginning to like that.
LB: Do you have many customers who are Chinese?
BAK: A lot more -- actually, so many more than we used to. They don’t live around here; they come from Plano, and up there. And I saw they all came for the hand-pulled noodles. We still have the hand-pulled noodles, but we use a machine to cut the skinny ones. I tried to do it, but it required too much physically.
LB: Are you a good cook?
BAK: I’m am a pretty good cook. I used to cook a lot; not really at the restaurant. But I do the pork belly for the noodles. Since the chef left, I’m making that. I actually trained the dumpling ladies to mix -- not the dough, but the filling. I trained the deep-fry people. I guess you never had the pearl rice meatballs.
LB: The steamed pork meatballs with shiitake and jicama, rolled in sweet rice -- from the gluten-free menu.
BAK: I used to make them for my kids when they were little. Years ago, I told my other chef I want to put this on the menu, but they said, no, it’s so much trouble. I got voted out. Now they’re on the menu.
LB: I understand that the dry-stirred beef has been on the menu since the beginning, and Buck's spare ribs. Any other dishes?
BAK: The egg fu-young.
LB: Every time I’ve been to Royal China lately, it has been crowded -- even on Monday nights. What’s the secret to Royal China’s success?
BAK: It’s not a secret; it’s paying attention to what we buy, what we use, how we cook. And I tell my servers, “We charge more than those people in Chinatown. We’d better give them better service and cook them food that you would eat yourself." And I said to the kitchen, "You have to cook from your heart, not because you come to a kitchen and do a job."
LB: How often are you and George in the restaurant?
BAK: Every day. I guess we are the two oldest ones there!