If you live in Dallas and want Chinese noodles, everyone knows Monkey King Noodle Co. in Deep Ellum is the place to go. It started as a takeout window and news of the tasty hot spicy beef noodle soup and dan dan noodles spread until Monkey King expanded into a larger space across the street, later adding additional shops in the suburbs.
Monkey King is one of the few Chinese restaurants to start in the city and expand into the hinterland. It’s also one of the few eateries catering to more traditional tastes in Central Dallas (walkable parts including Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods Deep Ellum, Oak Lawn, Oak Cliff, East Dallas, The Cedars, and Lower Greenville.)
Sure, the urban parts of the city have their share of take-outs and places offering Americanized dishes or some fusion, but a sit-down Chinese restaurant? Not so much.
Why aren’t there more sit-down, family-style restaurants in Central Dallas? “That’s a good question,” says Andrew Chen of Monkey King.
“There used to be more,” Chen says. “But development has wiped them out.” He pointed to a Hunan restaurant on Greenville Avenue which was bought by a grocery chain after being in business for decades.
Things might have been looking up last summer when San Antonio-based Hot Joy offered some Chinese dishes in a former steakhouse near West Village, but they didn’t end well. Over-the-top decor led to local headlines using words like “kitschy” and “cultural cluelessness.” It closed after only three months.
So what if a Chinese-owned Chinese restaurant had opened in the old steakhouse instead of Hot Joy? Would it still be going strong?
Jerry, a manager at Royal Sichuan in Richardson (who didn’t want to give his last name), says costly real estate in Dallas is a factor in keeping restaurateurs from taking the risk. Andrew Chen adds that Chinese food typically comes family-style and that means people don’t order entrees and cocktails as much. That makes it harder to turn a profit.
There are sit down Chinese restaurants in the Dallas suburbs. Among them, Royal Sichuan in Richardson, as well as Shanghai and Royal China in North Dallas. To be fair, China is a big country, boasting many varieties of cuisine that make words like “traditional” up for debate. But many of the restaurants in central Dallas are known to serve Americanized “take-out,” which includes dishes unfamiliar to mostly anyone from any part of China.
April Kao is one of the owners of Royal China, a popular sit-down restaurant offering a variety of Chinese fare, which has been in the same location and under the same ownership for more than four decades. Kao says the recent immigrants who typically open restaurants aren’t familiar with areas in Dallas or have the impression that Dallas isn’t safe. That doesn’t mean a restaurant there can’t work; it means few try.
“If I were younger I would consider Oak Cliff,” she says. “It’s an up-and-coming area.”
Another reason could be that the Asian population in Dallas, while increasing quickly, lags behind in several suburbs. Dallas stands at around three percent. In contrast, Plano and Richardson top 15 percent.
But from success deep in central Dallas, Chen says he isn’t concerned so much with the population of a given area, but rather driving distance. He says it’s not uncommon to see Asian families from Plano eating noodles in their Deep Ellum restaurant.
And he adds, the northern suburbs are where much of Monkey King’s food is prepared, because “that’s where the dumpling-making ladies live.”
If you got out of a cab in the downtown of most any U.S. city, you could probably find a mid-range sit-down Chinese restaurant within a few miles. Dallas would probably not make that list today. But things here change quickly. As the population grows and the suburbs become increasingly saturated with eateries, this big city could be seen as an open prairie, at least as far as Chinese restaurants go.