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LOST ANGELES TIMES - THURSDAY, MAY 17, 2001

Chinese Is Eaten Here

Royal Capital Shows Not All the Good Asian Cuisine in Little Saigon Is Vietnamese

BY TOM VASICH
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Everybody knows Little Saigon is the Center of Vietnamese cuisine in Southern California. But don't forget that it's also home to probably the finest concentration of authentic Chinese restaurants anywhere south of the San Gabriel Valley.

Most of these places feature seafood and boast live fish and shellfish, scooped before your eyes from the gurgling fish tanks that line, their dining rooms. Those who don't like to think about where their food comes from may have a problem with this, but it does guarantee the freshest seafood you can eat.

Royal Capital Seafood Restaurant, a perpetually busy Hong Kong-style spot on the edge of Little Saigon, offers an attractive selection of live seafood tanks. Its main allure is lobsters, which it serves for $9.99 a pound (they range in weight from 2 1/2 to 4 pounds), making it one of the better lobster values in these parts. So it didn't surprise me on a recent Friday night to find nearly half the customers digging into hubcap-size plates of lobster.

These crustaceans are offered in a variety of treatments, with choices of ginger and scallion, black bean sauce, spicy Thai sauce, Thai curry, chef's special sauce and the house special. I asked about that chef's special sauce, but my impatient waiter said I should have the house special lobster, end of discussion. Asking questions doesn't get you very far at this restaurant. So OK, I got the house special lobster.

All Royal Capital's "house special" dishes are cooked the same way: coated in flour flecked with hot pepper and spices, fried crisp in butter, and served on a bed of fried green onions and sliced green chilies. The buttery flavor given by this treatment complements lobster well, and even though I went for the smaller 2 1/2-pound size (which was chopped into handy sections, making it more accommodating for chopsticks), there was more than enough to go around my table of four. And it cost a mere $25, which is a bargain as lobster goes.

Whole fish But lobster isn't the only attraction here. The large menu is packed with shrimp, scallop, crab, clam, squid and whole fish dishes, not to mention abalone, sea cucumber, and a rich and savory braised shark's fin soup.

What's fresh on any given day is advertised on small signs dotting the wall near the front desk- scallops, $9.99 a pound; crab, $15.99 a pound; shrimp, $14.99 a pound, tilapia, $7.99 apiece; striped bass, $7.99; rock cod, $8.99. In addition to these signs, there will be a typed sheet of special dishes inserted into the regular menu, giving choices ranging from surf clams and turtle soup to fried fish cake and whole catfish.

If large scallops are listed on this menu, by all means order them. They cost $3.99 each and are served on the half shell. I chose them cooked in a wonderful Thai-styled mint and chile sauce laced with minced garlic. These scallops--three to four times the size of regular ones--were perfectly firm with an intense flavor. I had never had scallops that did much for me, but these changed my opinion. The difference was that noticeable.

The live fish are served whole, either steamed or fried, with a variety of sauces. Hot and sour fish features a tangy Thai sauce with orange peel and lots of fried onions and sliced green chiles. (Most dishes I've tried here feature this combination of green onions and chiles.) The hot-and-sour fish I had for lunch was a flounder, not nearly the caliber of the evening fish choices, but it was light and flaky and, best yet, cost only $4.85-and that includes soup, rice and dessert.

Aside from the live seafood choices, Royal Capital offers Chinese dishes familiar to most diners. The menu boasts more than 200 items, with the typical large selection of fried rice, chow mean, and shrimp, chicken, pork and beef plates.

Of the 17 shrimp dishes, my waiter again strongly suggested that I try the house special shrimp. OK, I thought; I'll play your game.

But to my surprise, the house special preparation is, if anything, even better suited to shrimp than to lobster. The frying formed a crunchy shell, and the red pepper flecks added a nice spicy touch to the shrimp flavor. All in all, it was an excellent shrimp dish, definitely better than those you get in a lot of Chinese restaurants.

Even standard dishes such as orange peel chicken are quite good here. The chicken bits are slightly crunchy, and the pungent orange flavor is much stronger than I've had at other places. Again, with the shrimp and chicken came the standard fried green onion and chiles.

In short, the food is of high quality and relatively inexpensive. Outside of the live seafood specials, most entrees average $8 to $10, and that's with portions large enough for two. A plate of four large, crisp egg rolls costs only $3.25, and even Tsingtao beer goes for $2 a bottle. The lunch specials are even more of a bargain: $4.25 for chicken, beef fried rice or noodle dishes and $4.85 for seafood dishes.

The drawback of Royal Capital is endemic to many Little Saigon-area restaurants. Service is mostly rushed and indifferent, and if you have questions, unless you're a Cantonese speaker, you're not bound to receive many helpful answers. At least at Royal Capital, you'll be directed to the house special. But, of course, that's not so bad.

Royal Capital is inexpensive. Entrée dishes range from $8.25 to $19.95, vegetable dishes from $5.95 to $6.95 and soups from $3.50 to $12.50. Live lobster is $9.99 a pound; crab, $15.99 and $18.99 a pound; and shrimp, $14.99 a pound. Lunch specials are $4.25 and $4.85.

Royal Capital, 10911 Westminster Avenue., Garden Grove. (714) 638-8331. Open 9 a.m. to 11p.m. daily.


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