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A Sweetheart of a Meal

Where to Wine and Dine Your Valentine

With its white tablecloths and spot-lighted display cases of carved-jade treasures, SAM WOO RESTAURANT at first appears icily formal—and uptight place where cool waiters intimidate patrons into whispering.

Ha! This is a thoroughly Chinese restaurant in Irvine, and dining there is hardly a silent, reverent affair. One weeknight, families with small children talked and laughed around us, while in the back of the straight-laced dining room a vast party of American and Chinese business people whooped it up. Only a few months old, Sam Woo has already become a popular gathering spot.

Maybe it is just that Sam Woo is in a great location; a few doors down, a major Asian supermarket pulls in customers from around south Orange County. Next door to the restaurant is the often-crowded Sam Woo B.B.Q., which sells barbequed poultry and meats to go. The scent of star anise and ginger, a seduction that’s hard to fight, floats out into the parking lot.

It helps that the restaurant offers a traditional Cantonese banquet menu (the chef is from Hong Kong) that emphasizes fresh fish (see them swimming in the aquarium by the kitchen). There is no person named Sam Woo; the Chinese characters forming the restaurant’s name translate into “man and nature in harmony.” Sam Woo is actually a chain, with other restaurants in such Chinese neighborhoods as Monterey Park.

This is not a restaurant that has been boiled and strained to fit “American” tastes. There may be overly familiar dishes such as orange-peel chicken and egg flower soup, but there are also mustard greens with bamboo pith, fish-maw soup, and a number of fragrant, wonderful hot pots.

The hot pots are listed on a menu of chef’s recommendations that is separate from the huge main menu, and selections from this small menu should form the core of the meal. Be sure to choose a hot pot—named for the covered earthenware in which a stew of tofu, vegetables, fish, chicken, pork or any other combination thereof is baked. The seafood-and-tofu hot pot (enough to feed four) includes chunks of dried tofu, its chewy skin impregnated with the flavor of the fish stock, and rock cod, scallops, and shrimp. The ingredients taste fresh and clean.

Many other dishes are also good: shredded-duck soup with its rich, smoky stock and yellow chives; a tangy appetizer of finely minced shrimp and vegetables served in a lettuce-leaf cup; panfried, salty Hong Kong-style noodles. Several of the same dishes are served at lower prices next door at Sam Woo B.B.Q., a bare-bones, Formica-table diner that does not take reservations. (The menu there also offers delicious pork ribs and 16 variations on the thick rice soup called congee.)

Sam Woo Restaurant, 15333 Culver Dr., Irvine; (949) 262-0688. Open daily 11 A.M.-10 P.M. Full bar. Lot parking. Wheelchair accessible. Visa, Mastercard. Dinner for two, food only: $30.

-Kitty Morgan

Prices subject to change without notice.
Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant 949.262.0688
Sam Woo BBQ Express 949-262-0888
Fax 949.262.0328
15333 Culver Drive, Ste 720 Irvine, CA 92604


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