Unknown Food Critic
600 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, 504-831-9633
TWO STARS (out of four)
Royal China seems to blend in with its bland and jumbled surroundings along Veterans Boulevard, but this restaurant harbors some distinctive flavors, a great deal of personality and a specialty in dim sum, the fascinating and fun Chinese small plates format.
Royal China looks like any other old, suburban Chinese restaurant badly in need of a renovation. This can be off-putting to first-time visitors – and it probably discourages some from ever visiting at all. But beyond the clutter, the battered menus and the occasional smudges, a home-style restaurant emerges.
The restaurant is overseen by its energetic proprietress Shirley Lee. She’s been at it here for more than 40 years and many of her staff have put in many years themselves. Plenty of their customers are regulars. Put that all together and you have the makings for that old familial, New Orleans-style service – casual, friendly, not at all bashful with recommendations or advice if you’re ordering too much or not enough. If it feels a little too loose on your first visit, by your second you’ll probably feel like a regular anyway.
One of the reasons I like Royal China is the way even some of the most standard Chinese menu items come out better than you might be used to. The wonton soup is a good example. They stuff the bowl with wontons, but also slivers of pork and a fistful of dark green spinach, which adds a lot more character to the simple soup. Shrimp toasts are first rate (though very oily, which is customary), and the list goes on and on through your favorites. A particular specialty to watch for is the stuffed eggplant, which arrives as thick disks of narrow, Chinese-style eggplant mounded with a mixture of crispy chopped shrimp, green onions and a peppery garlic sauce. Or you can share the kitchen’s seafood soup around the table: an ambrosial cauldron of shrimp and casually chopped scallop and squid joined by perhaps a half dozen varieties of mushrooms in a red broth of lemongrass, garlic, pepper, lime and tomato.
Royal China serves dim sum daily, and this alone makes the restaurant worth a visit. Dim sum, of course, is the traditional Chinese service style of small plates, usually consisting of three or four bite-sized morsels or something the size of a side dish. They don’t use the traditional dim sum carts, but instead supply a picture menu the size of a highway-map that lists dozens of choices. Dumplings, of which there are at least six varieties, arrive in batches of three or four, some in the lidded metal pots in which they were cooked, and emitting pork- and ginger-scented steam. Ground shrimp and pork erupt from the thin noodle wrappers of shiu mai and the bao, or buns, have a sweet, squishy texture and are variously filled with seared, steamed or baked pork. Chinese greens stir-fried with garlic, seared planks of tuna, blocks of tofu stuffed with shrimp --- the list goes on and on. It’s fun to make a feast of it with some friends.
Beyond the dim sum, the menu has all the Chinese restaurant standards plus a few areas of particular specialty, and it really pays to seek these out. There’s a whole section of soft shell crab dishes, for instance, prepared in distinctive Chinese styles. My favorite is called salt and pepper soft shell crab, which is fried, chopped up and tossed with jalapenos and green onions. Scoop some of this up with brown rice and hot sauce and you have a real cross-cultural treat. The lunch specials are good bargains but aren’t very exciting (the crawfish and black bean sauce is one notable exception). You’re better off digging a little deeper into this menu and assembling a few dishes to share with your table. The lunch buffet is a bargain proposition only, without much of interest under the heat lamps.
There is a full bar for basic mixed drinks, beer and wine.
Many of the specialties here cost more than you’re used to paying at conventional Chinese restaurants (many seafood dishes range from $19 to $27). But nearly all of them should be shared anyway, and with a huge soup and a few sides a table can make a meal of it. Lunch specials are under $10.
Royal China is an institution of the Metairie dining scene, in business for more than 40 years. If you didn’t already know that, however, there’s little from the outside to recommend the place. It looks like a former fast food joint converted into a standard-issue Chinese restaurant and it’s easy to pass up. That’s a mistake. Beyond the basics, this place has its own character and its own flavor and it is the place to dive in to dim sum.