There's something terribly nostalgic about Ruby Chinese. From the lobster tank near the front entrance, to the large single-level room, decor touched by tinges of red and brown, and large tables resplendent with lazy Susans, it's like stepping back into the 1980s.
Which is when Jim and Susan Chan opened the iconic Dickson restaurant, in 1982 to be exact, and it was in the family until 2015. Jim passed away in 2008; Susan, with the help of her children Jeffrey and Amy and a dedicated crew, kept it running for another seven years before Susan retired and they sold it to new owners.
But Jeffrey and Amy couldn't stay away, the new owners reached out in 2017, hoping they could help out for a while. Six years later they're still there, working the floor with grace and ease, and an insane knowledge of the dishes on the extensive menu.
Which comes in handy on this occasion. My companion is a regular here, she's a little surprised I've never been before. Lyneham's Mee Sing was my got-to local Chinese, another of those Canberra establishments which had been open for decades, run by the same family. When it closed in June 2023 my appetite for Chinese waned a little, if I'm honest.
But it's been ignited again by Ruby Chinese. As much as I wanted to order the old favourites, my guest, and Jeffrey Chan, want to take me on an adventure and titillate those tastebuds.
Ruby has a reputation for being a great seafood restaurant, from abalone, to coral trout, even freshwater eel. My companion knows this and phones ahead and orders us a mud crab.
She's a good-sized beast, weighing almost a kilo and a half, and market price brings her to $140, which isn't cheap I know. But there's enough meat to feed more than two of us and the thrill of breaking her up with those little plier-like utensils, extracting meat with the long skewer-like poker thingy (can you tell I've never done this to a crab before?) is all part of the experience.
We break up claws, literally suck the meat out of some portions. Chan supplies us with wet wipes but it does get messy. Perhaps not the best thing to order on a first date, but among friends it's a great thing to do.
We've asked for a ginger and shallot sauce, which is zingy but subtle at the same time. But it's the crab meat that's the star - fresh, tender, and plentiful.
We order pippis too ($34.80). While I spent a childhood waggling my feet in the sand to find these little bivalves so my father could use them as bait, I've never eaten them either. I'm a little surprised by how meaty they are, how flavourful. Here, we've ordered them with a XO chilli sauce on a bed of crispy noodles, but you can still taste the pippi itself, delicious. All those years wasting them as bait. The noodles are fun, the edges golden brown and crispy, and the serving of pippis is generous.
The next dish does ignite my appetite, literally. The sala ribs flambe ($30.80) is a parcel wrapped in foil, which Chan sets alight at the table. It's not the most attractive-looking fish before it's opened, just a parcel wrapped in foil. Chan jokes the kitchen likes serving it because it saves them making more flowers out of carrots. But never judge a pork rib by its cover as these are a revelation. Tender bites of pork, slathered in a salty, sweet sauce, as well as a good lashing of Japanese mayonnaise. Such a mix of flavours, but it works. You might need some more wet wipes for these too but they're worth the messy fingers.
Our one nod to old-school Chinese comes when we decide perhaps we should have some vegetables. We order garlic king prawns with mixed vegetables ($30.80) and while there are some greens on the plate, the prawns are the stand out. Plump, juicy, tender and cooked to perfection.
Maybe it was the dish that tipped us in a different direction, for we stay in the past and share a ball of deep-fried ice cream to finish. It's a classic, a crisp shell of golden batter around a scoop of ice cream that's just a little melty when we crack it open. Add a splash of caramel sauce and we're transported right back to 1982 when the Chan's probably first put this dish on the menu.
Perhaps that's the secret of Ruby Chinese, recognising what works, knowing what the customer wants, serving the old-school favourites alongside things that might take you out of your comfort zone just a little. (Did I mention duck tongues and pigeon?)
And they also have a Lunar New Year specials menu running at the moment, including longevity noodles, lucky sashimi salad and other traditional dishes. If you're looking for somewhere to celebrate, maybe book a table at Ruby.
Address: 18 Woolley St, Dickson
Hours: Open six days a week, closed Wednesday, from noon til 2pm, and 5pm til 10pm.
Managers: Jeffery and Amy Chan
Noise: No problem
Dietary: Plenty of options