A couple of months after taking over as chef at Royal China last September, Wei-Gou Cai was caught messing with the ma-po tofu.
“He added Sichuan peppercorns,” explains B-Lan “April” Kao, who owns the 41-year-old Preston Royal restaurant with her husband, Kai-Chi “George” Kao. Changing the recipe didn’t sit well with customers, some of whom have been patrons of the establishment since George’s father, the late Shu-Chang “Buck” Kao, opened it in 1974.
“A lot of people didn’t like it, but that’s what it’s supposed to have,” April says about the offending peppercorns. “So I had to say, OK, tone it down.”
I didn’t get around to sampling the dish, one of many that Cai has updated for the new menu he debuted in January. But I did order several of his new creations, such as pork ribs Wuxi-style. Cai — a native of Wuxi, a city two hours west of Shanghai — set the meltingly tender, meaty braised ribs, redolent of star anise and cinnamon, atop steamed baby bok choy on a pool of super-aromatic braising liquid. It’s a great dish.
On any given evening, Royal China’s inviting main dining room, with its cheerful yellow and red walls and red banquettes, is filled with young families and groups of older diners. April’s striking black-and-white art photographs, displayed throughout, help give the place a stylish, modern feel. The white marble dumpling bar, affording views of the kitchen, attracts solo diners. Often there’s a wait for a table, as there was on a recent Monday night.
In fact, despite the disappearance of its star attraction — Zhang Xue Liang, the exuberant noodle chef who had been pulling, stretching, throwing and twirling freshly made wheat noodles from behind the dumpling bar since 2010, left the restaurant in April — the place has seemed even busier than it had in the past few years.
Chalk that up to the talents of chef Cai, who hasn’t only added new tastes, but has also upped the quality noticeably on old favorites. Just about everything’s tasting fresher and more vibrant, beginning with Shanghai won-ton soup, whose flavorful pork-and- vegetable-filled dumplings float in a good, clear broth flecked with sliced scallion, or hot and sour soup more lively than most.
Handmade dumplings have been a specialty here since April put in the dumpling bar in 2008, as part of a major renovation. In fact chef Cai is married to one of the longtime “dumpling ladies,” as April calls them — Hwa-Juan Shen (the other is Yu-Xia Zhong). The ladies’ xio long bao, a specialty of the Jiangnan region (home to Shanghai and Wuxi), also known as soup dumplings, were pretty good, if not always technically perfect; a couple had leaked in their steamer basket before making it to the table — a hazard when a kitchen is working with appropriately fragile skins. But the hot broth-and-pork filling inside was excellent. There are also beautiful Sichuan spicy won tons with delicate wrappers. Their fiery Sichuan chile-oil sauce makes up for filling that’s a bit bland.
If you’re in the mood for old-fashioned American-style Cantonese dishes, consider the shrimp with lobster sauce: The large, carefully cooked prawns had fine flavor; snow peas and sliced water chestnuts gave it freshness and crunch. This time of year, a dish of sliced chicken breast mingled with bias-cut lengths of perfectly cooked asparagus and fat slivers of king oyster mushroom is also particularly nice.
There’s a sort of faux Peking duck — a half-bird that’s been roasted with garlic and ginger and five spice, then flash-fried. The meat was super-flavorful, though the skin wasn’t as crisp as it might be. No matter: Wrap it up in a pancake smeared with hoisin and showered with sliced scallions, and it’s delicious.
Sichuan gon bao pork is another good dish, a saucy, spicy stir-fry of diced pork, scallions, dried red chiles and roasted peanuts. That’s one of Cai’s new creations, listed on the menu under “new chef specialties.”
There were a few disappointments, such as baby bok choy stir-fried with king oyster mushrooms that weren’t quite cooked enough. Dense little “lion’s head” pork meatballs, coated in panko then fried, had great flavor, but they sat on a bed of julienned napa cabbage and mung bean threads that had merged into a gummy mass. Cantonese-style “Buck’s spare ribs” — on the menu since the start — were meaty and flavorful, but coated too thickly in sweet glaze.
Nevertheless, it’s always a pleasure to dine at Royal China, whose waitstaff is exceedingly friendly and attentive, much more professional than what you tend to find at some of the more bare-bones Chinese places in Richardson, Plano and Arlington — including those with exemplary food. Unlike at many of those places, here you can sip a mai tai or a beer, or choose from a superior selection of Chinese teas, which come to the table in a beautiful iron teapot with instructions about how long to let them brew.
Were you looking for hand-pulled noodles? Don’t worry — you can still get a big bowl of broad, Henan- style, pappardelle-like lamian noodles, pulled and stretched by April herself and smothered in an umami-happy, chunky and aromatic pork belly-and- mushroom sauce. It’s like the Henan province’s answer to Italian ragu, pretty fabulous.
Don’t expect the thinner, spaghetti-like Lanzhou-style lamian to be hand-pulled — at least not until a replacement is found for Zhang. It is freshly made in-house, though, and machine-cut. I sampled it cold, in a vegetarian version of dan-dan: The noodles were admirably springy and firm, even if they didn’t have quite the superb texture they used to. Unfortunately the Sichuan peppercorn sauce was overwhelmed by sugar.
I look forward to checking back in the coming months; at the ripe old age of 41, Royal China is once again a work in progress. “My plan is to try to introduce more authentic food to the general public,” says April.
In the course of fact-checking, I learned that Cai has not only been cooking banquets, but preparing special off-menu dishes for diners on request. I’m eager to order his Shanghai-style xiang zao pork belly marinated in rice wine lees then steamed, and other regional dishes as he adds them to the ever-evolving menu. “I wish people could accept that Chinese restaurants don’t have to serve a hundred items,” says April. “I’m trying to shrink down the menu, so I can serve better ones.”
In a city that isn’t exactly awash in sophisticated Chinese dining, it’s a promising prospect.
Royal China (3 stars)
Price: $$-$$$ (appetizers and dumplings $4 to $11; soups $3 for a cup to $15 for a large bowl; dishes $10 to $23; lunch specials $10 to $15; desserts $3.50 to $8)
Service: Attentive, friendly and professional. Everyone, it seems, is treated like a valued regular.
Ambience: An attractive modern dining room with a dumpling bar and exhibition kitchen as the focal point. Co-owner B-Lan "April" Kao's striking black-and-white art photographs decorate the walls.
Noise level: Pleasantly buzzy, but conversation was easy even when the restaurant was crowded.
Location: 6025 Royal Lane at Preston Road, Dallas; 214-361-1771; royalchinadallas.com
Hours: Lunch Sunday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday-Thursday 4:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4:30 to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more. Otherwise you can call ahead to put yourself on a wait list.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A one-page vintageless, uninspired wine list offers 16 whites for $24 to $115 per bottle, and 52 reds from $24 to $250, all scantily described. About two dozen are available by the glass, along with a handful of sakes and Asian beers.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor