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Review: Royal China 

Ian McNulty on the venerable Chinese restaurant in Metairie

click to enlarge Royal China Restaurant serves dim sum and other Chinese specialties. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

After nearly 40 years in business, Royal China has the kind of longevity that tends to make it part of the scenery. That's too bad, because on one level this is among the more reliable purveyors of straightforward Chinese-American standards. But just as this restaurant seems to hide in plain sight, its menu is far deeper and more deliciously varied than you might think at first glance.

  Here, amid pepper steak and Mandarin chicken, are pass-around, platter-sized dishes of minced pork with tofu or soft-shell crabs tiled over with garlic and hot chiles and a dim sum program, served every day, that includes more than 50 items. Royal China doesn't use traditional dim sum carts, but instead supplies a separate dim sum menu with corresponding photos of each dish. Some of the dim sum choices are familiar (chicken wings), others unexpected (tuna slices seared like tataki) and others are crave-worthy editions from left field (discs of fried eggplant covered with ground shrimp with garlic and pepper sauce).

  The menu makes you wonder how such a small restaurant can deliver everything it promises. At Royal China, the job falls to the capable hands of Shirley Lee, a sometime chef and full-time hostess of dizzying energy and charisma. She and husband Tang opened Royal China in 1974, not along after arriving here from their native Hong Kong.

  The weekday lunch buffet is a bargain but gives a poor impression of what Royal China can otherwise offer. For instance, there's a cauldron-sized soup of mixed seafood and a half-dozen mushroom varieties combined in a ruddy broth alive with lemongrass, lime and tomato. With a mounded side of gai lan or baked sesame tofu, you have the makings of a small feast.

  The basics aren't bad, but the kitchen tends toward the more oily school of Chinese cookery. Still, if you share my weakness for fried rice you might also like Royal China's alternate preparation using brown rice, which has slightly more virtue and a great deal more character.

  There is a tiny service bar for strong mixed drinks, a familiar list of beers and terrible wines, and the mirrored dining room is outdated and has a foggy sort of retro vibe. But while the setting seems tired the food stays fresh, and over the years the Lees have practically evolved their own hybrid cooking style, one might call Louisiana fishing camp Chinese.

  How else to explain what happens when they get a hamper of lake crabs and stir-fry them, in the shell, for a Cantonese crab salad? Inquire about what fish they have, and you might be treated to fresh-caught snapper or redfish done with all the garlic, herbs and aromatic oils of Cantonese cookery.

  Those specials aren't available with any kind of regularity, but it doesn't hurt to ask. At Royal China, the surprises aren't limited to your fortune cookie.

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