Meet your merchant: Tucked away, Royal Dragon II popular for 22 years | TheUnion.com

Meet your merchant: Tucked away, Royal Dragon II popular for 22 years

Roger La was just 13 when he first arrived in the United States in 1981, and he spoke no English — only Cantonese.

Born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, he had already moved to China and Hong Kong before settling in the suburban American city of Rancho Cordova. He came from a family of fisherman and farmers who raised and caught their own food. Job prospects were few for La's parents, but both were lucky to get hired at a Sacramento Chinese restaurant.

By the time La was in high school, he began working there, too, as his income was needed to help the family. He landed a summer job at a restaurant in Truckee one year, then stayed on full-time, sending money home to the valley. He never finished the 11th grade.

In the early 90s, La opened a Chinese restaurant in Georgetown with his father-in-law. They named it the "Royal Dragon." He went on to sell his share in 1995 when he got the opportunity to open a Grass Valley restaurant, "Royal Dragon II," with an uncle. It was situated in an unlikely spot, tucked out of sight in a parking lot shared with Kmart, but that did not deter the duo. Several years later, when La's uncle retired, Hong Mooc, La's cousin, became his partner.

La said that opening the Grass Valley eatery, which boasts select Cantonese, Mandarin, Hunan and Szechuan dishes, was the best decision he ever made.

"My wife was pregnant with our first child when we bought the restaurant," he said. "Now she's graduating from San Diego State."

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La's wife, Mui, used to work as a waitress at the restaurant and now cares for extended family members and works as a hairdresser. The couple has four children, ages 22, 20, 18 and 8. The eldest three daughters are in college, including UC Riverside and UC San Diego. The youngest, a son, is excelling at Kung Fu. The older children helped in the restaurant when they were younger, as the Las said they wanted their children to learn the value of hard work.

Favorite dishes include the General's Chicken (made with the chefs' special sauce), the Walnut Shrimp and the much-talked-about Crab Meat Puffs. Some locals come in solely for the puffs, said La.

While La oversees daily operations with his cousin, he knows to stay out of the kitchen — that is the domain of the uncles — three of them, all chefs.

"I never question the quality of the food because it's cooked by family — they care deeply," said La. "Every detail is very important. There are a lot of buffets out there that offer quantity, but we offer quality. A winning combination — good food, friendly service and reasonable prices."

While La and his extended family own homes in the greater Sacramento area, they stay in a dormitory in Grass Valley during the week to minimize the commute after long hours in the restaurant.

The care given to cook good food is the reason why the off-the-beaten-path restaurant has survived for the past 22 years, said La — many loyal customers have been coming for more than a decade and word-of-mouth has been the most effective advertising. Many retirees come through the doors in mid-afternoon, and happily take advantage of the senior discount. A highlight for children is the burly, 18-year-old arowana fish affectionately named "Sushi" that dominates a large aquarium near the front of the restaurant. Also known as "dragon fish," arowanas are believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

"It plays with people," said La. "He follows the children from one end of the tank to the other."

No one is a bigger fan of the Royal Dragon II than Nick Manzi, a Rough and Ready resident who has been coming to the restaurant every day since his wife passed away in 2012. He now has his own designated seat. When he has a doctor's appointment, he calls to tell the staff he won't be there for lunch.

"I come in every day about 2:30 — they treat me so well you'd think I own the place," said Manzi. "You'd think I'd get bored with the food, but the buffet gives me a lot of options, and you can't beat the price for a full, nutritious meal."

Manzi and other longtime customers are why La says he has loved his job for more than two decades.

"I love the people, and they all know me by name," he said with a broad smile. "They are like a part of my family. They're the reason I don't feel tired at the end of the day."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Royal Dragon II

101A W. McKnight Way, Grass Valley (in the Kmart shopping center)

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Sunday

Dinner: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday

4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays

Phone: 530-272-2868

Facebook: Royal Dragon II

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