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Royal Kitchen Just Might Be Cooking Up a Coup to Reign as King of Irvine's Chinese-Restaurant Scene

Time to Crown Royal?
China Garden is still the king of Irvine’s Chinese restaurant scene, but Royal Kitchen just might be cooking up a palace coup

For years now, Irvine has needed a Chinese restaurant to come along and break the monopolizing presence of China Garden. Sam Woo Restaurant put up a fight, but China Garden bested the old standby—on both quality and customers—long ago. The recently opened Capital Seafood at Diamond Jamboree might just be a contender to watch. Too early to tell.

But now, there’s another new player: A smaller, less-hyped, little engine that could called Royal Kitchen is trying its darnedest to lure away customers from the Garden path.

Stripped down to just the essentials in what was once Phoenix Food Boutique, Royal Kitchen is a no-frills place. The servers are all middle-aged or older, wear plain white uniforms with white socks and black sneakers, and speak just enough English to understand what you need but not enough to explain what’s in a dish. Compared to the Steve Wynn-style bling of Capital Seafood, Royal Kitchen is the less-glamorous Fremont Street: The walls sport nothing more than a few dull pictures hung in a room that’s barely lit. But since it’s closer to Irvine’s older Chinese neighborhood, it’s slowly garnering loyalty on the strength of its dishes—and because it is open until 11 p.m., which, for Irvine, is late.

The lunch specials are the main draw. No dish is listed for more than $8. Most are $6.25 and include rice and a bowl of hot-and-sour soup. On this list reside all the familiars (kung pao this and that), but also lily root with bean curd sauce and a whole, oar-sized, deep-fried flounder rendered crisp and golden.

The French-style beef steak is the best version I’ve tasted. Bite-sized cubes of filet mignon are tossed ever-so-briefly in a wok and lacquered in a tasty mix of soy sauce and Worcestershire, with more of the latter. Each morsel glistens with flavor you can see and melts as soon as it passes your lips. Chase each bite with the accompanying raw onions and sliced tomatoes.

Honey-glazed walnut shrimp, ever the fixture of wedding banquets, is done faithfully, with the crustacean cooked to crispy pink curls and lubed in a not-too-rich mayonnaise-y glaze. The walnuts, which function as both garnish and namesake, are as sweet and crunchy as peanut brittle. Though the lunch-special portion for the dish is small, it’s enough to satisfy your craving until the next time a Chinese friend gets hitched.

Not nearly as filling are the black-bean clams. These bivalves squiggle and squeak, hinting at their freshness, but after downing a few, you’ll find yourself with a plate full of empty shells and an unmet desire that the leftover onions and bell peppers won’t be able to satiate.

Royal Kitchen’s hot pots are just the prescription for cold, rainy days like those we’ve been having lately. The active ingredient common to all: cornstarch—and lots of it. It transforms mere soups into bona fide stews, with hearty, mouth-filling gravies meant to be slopped onto hot rice and slurped with gusto. Their powers of comfort are best displayed in the seafood-with-bean-curd hot pot, its custardy triangles of fried tofu swimming alongside shrimp, scallops and squid.

The same can be said for the congee, served in one of two roving carts as part of the eatery’s modest dim sum offering. Starchy and generously supplied with chopped thousand-year-old egg, it’s heaven on a spoon when it’s freezing outside. The other dim sum cart keeps har gow and rice-noodle rolls warm—both of which, it turns out, are too sodden and too thick-skinned to compete with the delicate specimens served at China Garden.

Better are the sugary-to-the-bone spare ribs and the chewy-crunchy tripe. Slather both with plenty of chili paste. Along with other non-steamed items, the egg-custard tarts and sesame-seed-encrusted, glutinous rice balls are stored in a refrigerator-sized heat box and brought out on trays when new customers arrive. Because of this, some pieces won’t be at their best.

China Garden may still win the dim sum round, but I can’t help but root for this underdog—and its mean French-style beef steak.

Royal Kitchen Seafood Restaurant at 14310 Culver Dr., Ste. F, Irvine, (949) 733-9200; www.royalkitchen-irvine.com. Open Mon. & Wed.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Tues., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sun. 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Lunch specials, $6.25-$7.25 per dish; dim sum, $2.25-$6.50 per dish. Beer and wine.

 
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