Where Y'Eat: Dim Sum and Then Some at Royal China

Aug 16, 2012

A daily dim sum service and a hybrid style akin to "Louisiana fishing camp Chinese" are the specialties at a long-time suburban outpost for Cantonese cooking.

Royal China has been cooking away for nearly 40 years now in its small, nondescript building, a one-time fast food joint at the start of Veterans Boulevard. It’s longevity has almost made it part of the scenery, which is too bad, because on one level this is among the more reliable purveyors of comforting Chinese-American standards. But, just as this restaurant seems to hide in plain sight, its menu is also far deeper and more deliciously varied than you might discern while driving past at 40 mph, or even after stopping in for quick take-out.

Here, amid pepper steak and Mandarin chicken, are pass-around, platter-sized dishes like minced pork with tofu, huge soft shell crabs tiled over with garlic and hot chiles, and a dim sum menu, served every day, that runs to more than 50 types of steamed, fried, savory and sweet small plates.

Royal China isn’t the only place for dim sum in town, but it is the only restaurant I’ve found serving it on the east bank and the only one serving dim sum daily. They don’t use the traditional dim sum carts, but rather, provided you ask for it, they supply a menu the size of a highway map, with corresponding mug shots of each dish. 

To do dim sum in this style, go with a group and order in waves of dishes, in the manner of tapas, to ensure you don’t get too much. Some of the choices are familiar (like chicken wings), others unexpected (like tuna slices seared like tataki) and still others crave-worthy editions from left field (like discs of fried eggplant covered with ground shrimp under garlic and pepper sauce).

It’s one of those menus that makes you wonder how the kitchen can stock everything it promises. But then, at Royal China that job falls to the capable hands of Shirley Lee, a sometimes-chef and full-time hostess of dizzying energy and plainspoken charisma. She and husband Tang opened Royal China in 1974, not along after arriving here from their native Hong Kong.

There is a weekday lunch buffet that is a bargain but gives a poor impression of what Royal China can really offer. For instance, look at the top of the regular menu and you’ll find a huge, ambrosial cauldron of seafood joined by perhaps a half dozen varieties of mushrooms, all in a red, oil-dotted broth alive with lemongrass, garlic and tomato. With a mounded side plate of bitter, dark green gai lan or baked sesame tofu you have the makings of a small feast right there.

The Lees have been at it for so long here they have practically evolved a new style, one I like to call fishing camp Chinese.

How else to explain what happens when this kitchen gets its hands on a hamper of lake crabs and stir-fries 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, ginger, herbs and aromatic oils of Hong Kong cookery.

These specials aren’t available with any kind of predictability, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. At Royal China, the surprises aren’t limited to the fortune cookies.

Royal China

600 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, 504-831-9633