Review: Let Simplicity Be Your Guide at Regal Seafood House and Lounge

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When a simple bowl of shrimp wonton soup grabs your attention and holds it through several meals, you take note. Opt for a bowl to begin a meal at Regal Seafood House and Lounge, the big-box-glitzy Stafford outpost from the folks behind Galleria-area gem E-Tao. Ordered as a peace offering to a couple of kids looking askance at pictures of crispy squab heads on the menu, it was the surprise hit of one weeknight dinner.

Hitting the sweet spot between simplicity and depth of flavor is a tough thing to do. Boasting a deeply nutty broth, a broad and roasty flavor base with just the right note of sweetness, that wonton soup gives any consommé a run for its money in terms of sheer flavor impact. It's like distilled essence of shrimp, its richness matched by its clarity and purposefulness, with a grace note of green onion drifting by as the shellfish blooms across your palate. The wontons themselves could perhaps be slightly thinner-skinned, but the rough-hewn shrimp they enrobe hits all the right notes, plump and pearly and echoing back the flavor of the broth.

Why spend so many words on an offhand order of soup? Because it's a good marker for how Regal Seafood might best be approached in general. Let simplicity be your guide.

It might be tempting to order the night's lobster special, for example, two midsize specimens cooked, cracked and perched atop a bed of nicely springy chow mein noodles (house-made, they say). At $32.99, it seems like a hell of a fair shake, on account of both the lobster and the portion size, easily enough to feed a family of four, with a few carefully chosen extras.

You might find, though, that the lobster is drowned out by its overly viscous sauce, its cornstarch thickness and vague flavor profile masking the sweet shellfish, itself perhaps a touch past its dewy optimal doneness.

Better to go with the tea-flavored prawns, perhaps. Though they've been given their own coating of starch, it's light and blistery, offering only the slightest of contrasts to the succulent meat. As with that elemental soup, the flavor of the prawns rings clear and true, nutty and sweet, augmented nicely by the softly tannic and vegetal accent of their tea flavoring. Do yourself a favor and eat the tail, too. The crunch is satisfying.

Also worth an order is the enormously proportioned pork shank, toward which your waiter might direct you if you ask after the crispy pork trotter from the Starters section of the sprawling menu. The picture on the facing page is of the shank, and it often confuses diners into ordering the trotter, your waiter says. He doesn't want you to be upset when a foot arrives in front of you, leaving you to prize morsels out from between bone and cartilage. If that's your thing, it might take some convincing for the staff to relent; the tendency to shepherd diners away from what the house deems "more challenging" items is a bit of a recurring theme.

You won't be too put out at the kid gloves when the shank arrives. Deep-fried skin-on and sliced into rounds, the mildly sweet pork is run through with a gelatinous slick and yielding fat, its cap of blistered skin recalling the gratifying crunch of chicharrón. It's fun and gluttonous for all its simplicity, served with a small dish of pickled vegetables to cut through its considerable richness.

The pickled vegetables show up again on the condiment plate provided with the Peking duck (Beijing duck here), carved table-side. The simplicity of such a dish might be debatable, but it is essentially roasted meat. It's roasted to such a deep and burnished mahogany that it practically thrums. Yes, the preparation is lengthy and it's presented with an air of pomp and circumstance that might warrant accompaniment by the Triumphal March from Aida. Still, it is roasted meat.

For the price of a whole duck ($39.99), you will be presented with two duck courses. The first proves that the point of any roasted poultry is really the skin. Sliced with just enough meat to provide background, rectangles of skin are tiled onto a platter, to be plucked up and deposited onto housemade pancakes. Dress with hoisin sauce and fresh and pickled vegetables, and tuck in. Soft, slightly fluffy crepes give way to the shatter of the duck skin, its gilding of rendered fat rushing just ahead of the flood of juices from the meat itself. It's a study in contrasts, simple and arresting.

The second iteration of that same duck pales in comparison. A mince of duck meat and vegetables meant for spooning into lettuce cups, it could well have graced the table of any initial-monikered mega chain and not felt the least out of place. As with the lobster, the poor duck is outmatched by its accoutrements. It's not bad per se; it's just not a worthy use of the bird. The point of Peking duck, though, is that first go-round, and it is very much worth the price of admission.

If you show up looking for xiaolong bao, the soup dumplings likely being the other dish high on most diners' lists, come early for weekend dim sum. They seem to sell out quickly. You can try to content yourself with the restaurant's other dumpling offerings, culled from a trim and comparatively pricey selection of steamer stalwarts. Most of them are good, though, and not great.

Steamed pork and shrimp dumplings have a nicely springy texture, with a ribbon of pork fat slicking the sweet shrimp, and a bright pop of orange roe on top. They skew just a bit too sweet though, and their skin of dough a little too thick for them to stand out in a city with a wealth of dim sum options.

So too with the har gow, crystal-skinned shrimp dumplings whose wrappers threaten to fall apart from over-steaming. Their filling is delicate and sweet, though, and contrasts nicely with the little dish of chili oil that might grace your table. Dusky, earthy, and slightly fruity, its bloom of heat is rounded out by a smoky, almost fermented note that proves as addictive as it is elusive.

If those dumplings don't quite live up to expectations, the shrimp fried rice with dry scallop far outpaces them. Its pale visage is not a portent of blandness but a promise of elegance and delicacy, played out in shades of white rice, pearlescent and pale pink shrimp, and translucent green discs of Chinese broccoli stem.

That rice -- just slicked and firmed enough to verify its frying, each grain beautifully distinct and with a fine and gentle chew -- is a far cry from the shouty specimen you might be expecting. Drifts of downy egg white stud the platter, only slightly more ethereal than the barely cooked (in the best possible way) shrimp scattered generously throughout. The broccoli retains a delightful and delicate crunch against all that softness, and shreds of dried scallop dusted across the top whisper of the sea.

This is focused and considered cooking, utterly elemental in its simplicity yet balanced on a knife's edge. Cooked a bit longer or at too high a temperature, and the rice might go from delicate to stodgy. Add the broccoli too soon or slice it too thinly, and it loses its delicate snap. A heavy hand with the scallop filaments could send the dish teetering into the bait bucket. As it is, the dish is disarmingly simple, elegant and pointed. Just like that wonton soup.

Unfortunately, this all adds up to a bit of a quandary. The menu at Regal is a bit of a tome, and its descriptions often only hint at what ingredients are in a dish. It's probably a good bet that the soups, for the most part, stand up to the rigors of that first insistent bowl. Likewise, if the kitchen can turn out fried rice with the assured sense of purpose demonstrated in the shrimp and scallop version, it's probably safe to assume the same from the broader selection. Those dishes lend themselves to a simple directness that is hard to capture and, in some ways for that very reason, indicative of a rule rather than an exception.

The Peking duck is almost a given.

For the rest of the menu, it's clear that the kitchen knows how to handle a range of proteins, and the treatment of seafood can be quite good. Be wary of sauces lest you find your freshly netted lobster or crab blanketed by a glut of overly thickened versions. For starters, look for the dishes with the fewest ingredients, the better to let the kitchen allow the star to shine. Overly complicated-sounding preparations are probably just that. Ask for guidance through the vaguely worded menu, keep it simple and you should find plenty of riches at Regal.

Regal Seafood House and Lounge 12350 Southwest Freeway, Stafford, 281‑494‑8888. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.

Shrimp wonton soup $5.99 Braised squab $17.99 Crispy pork feet (shank) $22.99 Tea-flavored prawns $15.99 Whole Beijing duck (two dishes) $39.99 Lobster with pan-fried noodles $32.99 Har gow (shrimp dumpling -- five pcs) $5.99 Shumai (pork and shrimp dumpling -- four pcs) $4.99 Fried rice with shrimp and dry scallop $13.99

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