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Good Asian Grub: Lion City Chinese Cafe in Plano

chicken
Hainanese chicken (photos by Carol Shih)

I hesitate to add Lion City Chinese Cafe to this “Good Asian Grub” series, but this Chinese/Singaporean restaurant is so undeniably tasty… to leave it off would feel almost wrong. The truth is, the service here is not great. By “not great,” what I really mean is “so terrible, it’s pretty much nonexistent.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t go here.

In fact, you should. Just not when it’s busy.

I first heard of Lion City when my Singaporean friend, Jason, was blowing by Dallas on his grand Southern tour. “There’s a really good Singaporean restaurant here,” he said. “Better than the ones I’ve had in LA.”

“No way,” I responded, incredulous. Dallas? Better than Los Angeles when it comes to Asian food? Rarely. (I love you, Dallas, but the truth hurts.)

Cod fried rice with fish roe and scrambled egg

Service and Decor

Lion City Chinese Cafe, squished inside a Plano strip mall, is probably one of the ugliest restaurants I’ve seen in awhile. It’s as if someone bought the space and asked him or herself, “How can I transform this into the most ratty tatty, I-don’t-care-for-aesthetics hole-in-the-wall in the universe?” Easy: buy blocky, wooden tables and chairs to go with a linoleum floor. Add nothing to the walls, save for questionable pictures of food that may or may not even belong to the restaurant. Perfect. You’re done.

So that’s what Lion City Cafe looks like.

You go in, the owner, Mr. Lee, sidles to your table and takes your order. He doesn’t explain anything unless you ask, and even when you do ask, he responds with curt answers. He’s not being rude, he’s just busy. (Mr. Lee isn’t just the owner; he’s the waiter, the host, and the busboy.) You’d think someone juggling so many roles would fly or sprint or something, but he walks away only slightly faster than a snail’s pace to the kitchen, where his wife, Mrs. Lee, and one other cook are in the kitchen. Yep. Two people are cooking for a restaurant filled to capacity on a Friday night. Great.

Now it’s time to wait. Well, technically, you grab your own chopsticks, bowls, plates, and glass of water before you plop down. Everything’s neatly stacked behind the counter, next to the cashier register. Regulars know the drill. They’ve been coming here so long, nobody complains. They’re used to it.

Toddlers run around the restaurant like it’s a jungle gym, crying and squealing. A headache begins to form in the middle of my forehead. Being hungry doesn’t help. People are waiting outside for a table, and Mr. Lee makes no effort to move any faster. He’s lollygagging his way around the restaurant, telling a nice couple that arrives at 8 p.m., “I’m sorry, there’s no more food.” The restaurant closes at 8:30 p.m. They leave just like three or four couples before them, without complaint. They know how Lion City Cafe works.

hokkiennoodles
Hokkien noodles with bean sprouts, mini shrimp, chicken, and egg

The Menu

An hour after we order, the food finally arrives. By now, I’m ready to stab something. Maybe the ugly pictures on the wall. But the Hainanese chicken – flavorful, tender, juicy, moist, and everything one could ever hope to taste in chicken – melts all my pent-up anger. Dangit. I can feel the frustration seeping away with every bite. It’s that good. Dangit. It’s a simple dish with just a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil underneath (not enough to overwhelm). Better yet, it’s accompanied by white rice cooked in chicken stock, which results in a comforting blend of aromatic flavors.

The cod fried rice, tossed with egg and bright orange fish roe, has the same effect. Each tiny ball of cod is a bubble of soft, salty happiness surrounded by hills of plump rice. The portion size is huge. Four people could eat this and easily get full.

Crunchy bean sprouts mixed with baby soft fat green noodles and vermicelli make the Hokkien noodles, hands down, one of the most unique noodle dishes in Dallas. The noodles lie languidly in a bowl half-filled with broth, leaving the top half of the noodles dry, while the bottom half is dry. The shrimp and squid add a good amount of chewiness to the dish, making this a fun one to eat. There’s so much contrast and color. (The photo doesn’t do it justice.)

My Singaporean friend recommended that we eat the chili crab, which ran out when we got to Lion City, so that’s one thing on my list that I definitely have to try. It’s no wonder Lion City is brimming at max capacity on weekends. The food is homey, warm, comforting, and people come back in spite of the horrible service. They deal with it, because the Lees are who they are, and they probably wouldn’t even give a rat’s a** if they ever get a five star rating from the Dallas Morning News or not.

Service could easily be better if Lion City Cafe decides to, you know, just hire people. But would I ever go back again? Without a doubt, yes. I’ll just never return on an empty stomach, I’ll be sure to avoid weekend rush hours, and next time, I’ll be armed with a book.