Want to land one of the toughest tables in town? Forget the French Room on Valentine's Day. Or the Mansion for your anniversary. Or Town Hearth on a Saturday night.
Try walking into the venerable North Dallas domain of lo mein, Royal China, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
You don't have to be Jewish, but it helps.
Royal China, the stalwart of the ever-evolving Preston Royal shopping center, has been dishing out moo shu, General's chicken and other old-school Chinese-American staples since 1974. There is no busier day of the year for second-generation owner Kai-Chi "George" Kao than Christmas Eve, when almost all of his 90 to 100 covers are Jewish families who first came from the neighborhood and then from all over Dallas. He takes reservations more than a month in advance. He also saves some tables just in case somebody gets a last-minute yearning for kung pao. Just be prepared to wait up to 90 minutes. And takeout? Not your best call. There often comes a point where they just have to shut it down.
In the middle of it all is Kao, 65, who came from Taiwan to work in his dad's restaurant 40 years ago and now is often seen kibitzing with his Christmas Eve fressers in Yiddish. If that's not the Christmas spirit, then I don't know what is.
"It's been part of the tradition for the community," Kao said after I downed a hot bowl of the city's best hot and sour soup and ate some handmade dumplings from the in-house dumpling and noodle bar.
"Eat Chinese food. Go watch a movie. I love it. It feels really good to have the whole neighborhood in here. Everybody knows each other."
And, truly, most of the crowd may be Jewish, but the warmth spans religions.
Shane Keller of Dallas has been a Royal China regular for years but went one Christmas at the suggestion of Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky. Now, Keller makes reservations a regular part of his Christmas shopping list.
"It's the anchor to our Christmas," he said. "It's probably the nicest holiday tradition we have. Nobody cares about the length of the wait. Everybody is just happy to see one another."
In my house, we celebrate Christmas. And Hanukkah. (I endorse all holidays in which I may end up getting a gift.) The first year I was with my wife, we tried to imitate the Italian-Catholic side of her family and prepared the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Don't know about you, but I run out of creativity -- and the ability to properly man the stove -- at about four fishes. It was a fun night, but the feasting was a bit more like fasting. The next year, I suggested my people's tradition: Chinese food.
First, she laughed.
These days, when we embark on a vacation over Christmas, she's searching for the best Chinese options for Christmas dinner. It just goes together.
There is no real explanation for why Jews and Chinese food go together so well. But they do and always have. In L.A., there is a Chinese restaurant called Genghis Cohen. Regular stop. Best egg rolls you will ever have.
According to documentary co-producer Jennifer 8. Lee in The Search for General Tso, much of the reason is convenience. In New York's Lower East Side, around the turn of the 20th century, the two biggest non-Christian immigrant groups were Eastern European Jews and Chinese. Chinese restaurants were open on Sunday; it wasn't the Jews' sabbath.
Others suggest it was easier for observant Jews who strictly keep kosher. My dad, not terribly observant but proud of his heritage and from a family with strong Jewish traditions, wouldn't allow even a slice of bacon in the house. But every time we went to our neighborhood spot, he'd order a plate of spare ribs.
Similarly, Royal China isn't a kosher restaurant. It seems all the Jews who eat there are comfortable with that.
I have one other theory on the bond between our cultures: Jewish food is often salty, which is a product of the koshering process and heavy-handed grandmas using the only spice they could afford. There is no shortage of sodium in Chinese food.
So, as these two groups of immigrants became assimilated and moved West and South, their bond traveled with them. And on a Christmas Eve night or on Christmas Day, there is no better place for them to share fellowship than at places like Royal China, Plano's Yao Fuzi and the trio of Howard Wang's China Grills.
"What I love about it is that you can feel the people and you can feel the energy," Kao said. "It's a really warm feeling. In the restaurant business, you want to serve your community and your neighborhood, and on nights like that, you really get to do that."
I take one last bite of the moo shu pork and say goodbye to Kao after our visit.
"Zei gezunt," he says with hearty voice.
It's not a dish on the menu. It's Yiddish for "to your good health."