Have been going to Empress, in Chinatown, for dim sum about twice a month for years. On recommendations on this board, thought I'd try Royal Star, in Santa Monica.
On their best day, early on a Sunday, and if favorite dishes happen to come out of the kitchen one on top of the other, Empress is REALLY good. Maybe not as great as what I've encountered in SF Chinatown dim sum spots, nor does Empress have the variety I've found in restaurants there, but excellent. Each dish lighter, fresher, more delightful than the last. However, dim sum during the week just doesn't taste as well prepared and is sometimes even stale. And,on weekends, the restaurant is noisy and crowded and service can be slow. If you don't arrive early, nine-thirty is about right, you are in for major line up problems. If seated down an oddball aisle, it can be a struggle to get at any food whatsoever! In the worst case, have seen people actually paying servers to act as runners to try to obtain any dishes at all!
At Royal Star, on a Saturday at 11, no line ups, a pleasant, uncrowded room, and immediate service of four dishes that appealed, and easy access to another three over the course of the next half hour. Ideal. Huge advantage in "hassle" factor over Empress. As to the food, it was pretty good. A couple of minor quibbles--the steamed pork buns had the unmistakable taste of raw flour, surely not usually a problem. The wrappers were a little chewier on several types of dumplings than those at Empress, but the fillings were very good, especially the shrimp items. In some cases, the egg tarts for example, Royal Star allows three pieces while Empress gives you four. Can't say for sure there were not other cases where Royal Star was more generous in portions than Empress, however. Very much liked the fact there were servers at Royal Star carrying around plates of skewered fried shrimp, not a typical dim sum item. I think Royal Star was slightly more expensive than Empress, and Royal Star does charge for tea and Empress does not. Not a big deal.
On balance, Royal Star is about a three minute drive from where I live, and other than going for dim sum, I have no particular reason to care to venture into Chinatown. On it's very best day, when the sun and the moon and the stars are all aligned, Empress gets the nod overall on the quality and taste of the food. Will try Royal Star a few more times, however, and sure do like the short commute.
Opinions as to the two spots?
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