Editors' note: This story was reported and written before Royal Capital Seafood closed in October of 2022.
Royal Capital Seafood Restaurant, located in the Little Saigon district of Garden Grove, California, is a chandelier-studded Teochew-style palace of oceanic delights. Walk through its doors on any weekend and you’ll see servers navigating the congested dining room, carrying platters of lobster, crab, fish, and shrimp that were just minutes ago swimming in one of the restaurant’s many holding tanks.
Of the menu’s more than 200 items, the standouts are the house-special seafood dishes. What they all have in common is their preparation: a dredging in potato starch before being flash-fried and tossed in an aromatic mixture of fish sauce, jalapeños, black pepper, garlic, scallions, and butter.
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In addition to being spectacular and worthy of a long drive, the house specials also provide a history lesson in Teochew diasporic cooking. With roots in Guangdong, the Teochew diaspora spans the world, with significant communities in Vietnam and Cambodia. The house specials’ frying method and the mixture of fish sauce, jalapeños, black pepper, garlic, and scallions in butter sauce reflect this convergence of Teochew, Khmer, and Vietnamese foodways. And there’s a nod to the community’s more recent history of migration to California: the liberal use of jalapeños, a Golden State staple, where you might otherwise expect to find the more commonly used Thai chile of Southeast Asia.
To me, this kind of cooking, the kind that rejects confinement, that confounds efforts to be classified as one cuisine or another, is what makes the Royal Capital house specials so special—they represent the elasticity, adaptability, and fluidity of cuisines as populations cross borders that are both physical and psychological.
Shrimp with Garlic and Jalapeño ButterFresh, fast “California cooking” with a tether to the Teochew diaspora.
For this precise reason, it’s sometimes hard to identify a Teochew-style restaurant. They may be advertised as Chinese, Vietnamese Chinese, or Hong Kong–style restaurants, but if you hear any combination of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Khmer being spoken in the dining room, you’re most likely in the right place.
Royal Capital wasn’t the creator of this style of preparing seafood—as Diana Zheng notes in Jia! The Food of Swatow and the Teochew Diaspora (2018). That honor belongs to Ly Hua of Tan Cang Newport Seafood Restaurant. Neither is Royal Capital the only place to find these house specials, as there are a number of Teochew-style banquet halls throughout Little Saigon that prepare seafood in a similar fashion.
But I have a soft spot for Royal Capital, which was where I first encountered this style of cooking. The place has been feeding diners for more than two decades. Royal Capital might look a little long in the tooth and perhaps her once palatial decor needs an update, but she’s still serving up my favorite versions of these dishes.
Diep Tran is a coauthor of The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from the Family Behind the Purest Fish Sauce (2021) and the founder of the Banh Chung Collective. She is the former chef/owner of Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles.